How (not) to teach children about the Internet
Avoiding e-safety and sticking to lolcats.
About a month ago I was invited by my daughter’s teacher to do a talk about ‘The Internet’ to a group of 30 ten year olds. They had been doing e-safety stuff and the teacher felt that although it’s useful to know how to protect yourself online, it might also be worth knowing some good stuff as well. So, not realising that I’m a cynical grump, she asked me.
Here’s the truth upfront:
I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO TALK TO CHILDREN ABOUT THE INTERNET.
That is, I am not pedagogically equipped to teach children of this age. I lead a Master’s course in Social Media at Birmingham City University but teaching adults is a whole lot different to teaching kids. Further, I’m not fully across the e-safety discussion right now. Should I be telling them, as I tell my own students, to explore new platforms? To play with identify? To create stuff, break stuff and try again?
All I knew was that the tone needed to be generally positive because all they had heard to date was that the Internet was the scariest place on earth.
For my talk I decided to take the Seinfeld approach: “No learning, no hugging” (I actually began the talk by saying “you might think I’m going to show you stuff that will then build to a point where you will learn something – that probably won’t happen.”)
Obviously I stuck to the ‘no hugging’ rule but I’ll admit I tried to slip in a bit of learning by first throwing in a vague ‘the Internet is kinda like a load of connected computers’ slide and later, telling them about another 10 year old, Martha Payne.
Of course I also showed them lots of stuff about cats. And Minecraft. My final slide said: ‘The Internet is yours. Please don’t break it’.
They all sat on the floor at the front of the class, were polite, asked questions, and all (30 of them) wrote me letters afterwards. They were awesome and so was their teacher. I think they left feeling that the Internet can be playful but it’s only as good as you make it.
The digital literacy agenda is being shaped by two dangerous trends. First, the tendency to think children are automatically ‘naturals’ at this stuff (the ‘digital native’ debate). Second, that an uncontrolled Internet is a danger to them and should therefore be controlled. Neither position does them any favours. We need to prepare them more carefully for the debates they’ll encounter as they grow up in a digital age, and for the relationships they will form. Showing them pictures of cats obviously isn’t the answer, but as a start, it’s a whole lot better than scaring the pants off them.