Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Understanding kids online

Posted by Richard Koman - April 4, 2007

I spent about half an hour on the phone yesterday with Anastasia Goodstein, author of the just-released Totally Wired. It's really aimed at parents and teachers who are trying to make sense of kids' use of technology and how to approach that use, but her research seemed to me to be of interest especially to the Web 2.0 sector, which is so youth-centric.

First and foremost, she wants to disabuse people of the notion that kids on MySpace are in perpetual danger of being abducted by sex abusers and rapists.

There's this fixation on "stranger danger" and predators online. Naturally, the media converge on events when they do happen, with programs like "To Catch a Predator" - as a parent, that's going to scare the crap out of you.

The reality is, the number of children abducted by strangers they meet online is extremely low - much lower than children abducted by people they know. Yes, they're there, but teens especially older teens are pretty savvy about online and are more interested in talking to friends - and friends of friends. It's more of a risk for younger kids and tweens.

Kids do deal with real online issues, though, like cyberbullying. And kids being kids, they are also guilty of bullying. Goodstein quotes the story of a 13-year-old girl who wrote on her MySpace profile that her teacher "masturbates with a flute."

If she had just written that on a note to a friend and it was discovered, she would have probably gone to the principal's office and it would have been dealt with. By putting it on MySpace, other kids participated, it escalated and they were expelled. It's the viral nature of the Web.

Enough bad news, though. Overall, the tween and teen fascination with the net is a "positive thing, a democratizing influence," she says.

So some lessons for Web 2.0 entrepreneurs: * Kids are talking to their friends and they growing up online.

The people teens are communicating with online are the people they communicate with face to face. A recent study found that teens find they have deeper relationships with the people they have both online and offline communications with. Kids will say things online they can't say face to face. Boys are more willing to flirt with girls in IM than they would be in person. They're getting immediate validation in their online communications.

* Multitasking doesn't work.

Studies show neurologically that you dont retain as much when you multitask. It's just a myth that younger generations are able to multitask - somehow they're able to get by. I've talked to teens who say 'I just can't do it.' I encourage parents to set limits at study time - turn the phone off, put IM on "away" or log off.

* Schools are really struggling with this stuff

I really feel for the teachers. With No Child Left Behind, there's so much pressure to teach to the test. There's not a lot of time to keep with up technology. And while there are many grants to buy the latest technology, there are often no funds for training. So no one's thought about how to use the technology.

Some teachers are fearful that if they ask some tech-savvy students for help, they'll lose their place of authority, they'll be admitting they're not the all-knowing teacher. There are certainly trailblazers, teachers who are using blogging and video games in the classrooom ... but they're very much in the minority. There's no push to experiment with these technologies. There isn't a growing body of knowledge that teachers can tap into.

There's also understandable fears about liability and risks attached to using MySpace and blogs for homework assignments. Some companies are responding to this with white-label social networking products.

* This generation is creating its own media

Many kids are learning to write code and use FinalCut, although most teens like to do stuff that's relatively easy. With the cost of cameras getting cheap, the fact that it's easy to build some kind of following on YouTube is incredibly exciting. Teens are creating their own TV programming. It's going to force major changes in advertising and make corporations more accountable.

* Kids are living their lives publicly - for good or ill

The reassuring news is what they're doing online is what they've always done offline - figuring out who they are, socializing, getting validation. The motivations are the same. The big difference is the public nature of this. They're more comfort living their lives publicly. Part of it is ignorance, part of it our society, with reality TV, etc. As young people realize that employers and college recruiters google people, hopefully they'll scale that back or at least make their profiles private.

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