How Young is Too Young? Exploring children’s use of social media: An Interview with Andy Affleck
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Andy Affleck is an alum of Dartmouth College. He is leading the development of an iOS/Android application for a startup called Ozmott and is also the author of Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac. He’s written numerous articles for TidBITS and is the proud father of an 11 year old.
Your son attended the Waldorf School where modern technology and media – TVs, computers, mobile phones, video games, and so on – are severely restricted. Did you adhere to the same policy at home?
We did adhere to the policy. Our son attended the Waldorf School during the 2nd and 3rd grades and, at those ages, I felt there was little value in technology as anything other than casual entertainment. The school policy was no media during the week (TV, computers, etc.) and limited use on the weekends. So, he got to play on a few websites he liked (Webkinz, mostly) on the weekend. Now that he is older, there is more value to be had, and he is at a school that makes good use of technology both at school and at home.
You left the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology in Education program with the firm belief that computers in education make more sense at older ages than at younger ages. What other ideas did you take away from the program?
At younger ages, children need concrete experiences. They will get a lot more out of working with physical objects than they will virtual ones. At a younger age, I just don’t think children are that great at making the translation from the virtual to the real, at least not consistently, so I don’t really think there’s much point in using a computer as an educational tool. It is just entertainment at that age and should be treated the same way TV is. As they get older, their ability to conceptualize grows and they can start to make that translation.
If there was an online course for parents to teach that transition for children into social media, what topics would be necessary?
First and foremost, parents need to understand the mechanics of how these systems work. They need to be able to see who is speaking to their child in the various possible ways (Facebook comments, instant messaging, text messaging, etc.); they need to understand how to properly set privacy settings to protect them; and they need to understand how these systems can be used for both good and for bad so they are prepared to deal with any situations that come up. All too often, parents know too little about the way these systems work (and Facebook seems to go out of its way to make it difficult to understand, and then change it often enough so you never can stay caught up) and so let their kids use them without any proper supervision or ability to help them out when they need help. If kids sense that their parents have no clue, they won’t even go to them for help, so the parents may not even realize there is a problem.
The analogy I like to use is a parent taking a child into a big city for the first time. They hold their hand. They explain the cross walks. They warn them about the scary yellow cars. They explain about keeping themselves safe and what to do if they get separated from their parents, and so on. In the same way, parents should be working with their children to understand this new world of social media, how to safely navigate the streets and crosswalks of Facebook and such and stay safe. They would never let their child go into the city alone by themselves on their first visit and they shouldn’t do that with social media either.
What are the biggest dangers of introducing children to social media?
The biggest danger is a parent who doesn’t understand anything an let their children go without supervision before the child is ready to be alone. I believe parents have a responsibility to teach their children to be good, decent people. They teach their children how to be polite, how not to say mean or hurtful things, how to be a friend to people and how to be kind to strangers. By the same token, they need to do this with social media. We do not need another generation of people who all post the kinds of horrible things you see on any given YouTube comment thread. And we need to teach children that the only person in history who had the right to shout “First!” was Neil Armstrong.
How much of a responsibility should schools take in guiding students towards using social media in smart, effective and ethical ways?
I go back and forth on this one. Schools are involved with socializing children. If your child is bullying another, the school will ask you to come in and talk to them and work with them on a way to address the issue. By the same token, that should extend to social media. Of course, most — if not all! — of what happens on a site like Facebook is not on school property and outside of their jurisdiction. So it is not clear that schools have any business saying anything about behavior online. That said, I think it would be a wise thing for schools to do some work with kids on good online behavior in general the same way they do anti-bullying presentations. I don’t know how effective these things are, but it’s a start.
Some adults have decided that to remove social media from their lives because they feel it’s completely unnecessary. Are there benefits to introducing social media into a child’s life?
I am a firm believer that no child should be allowed a Facebook account until they are 13, as that is the official policy of Facebook. Even when they are 13, it is the parent’s job to determine if their child is emotionally mature enough to handle social media and be a good online citizen. That said, I see a few advantages:
1) It is a great way to stay connected after a move. My son has a number of friends he still talks about that he hasn’t seen in a few years. I imagine him getting reconnected through Facebook in a few years.
2) Often times, kids aren’t going to school in their local community. My son goes to school that’s at least 10 miles away. His best friends outside of the city on the opposite side from us. Getting the kids together requires a lot of driving so after school meet-ups are not common. Right now, they use the phone a lot, but I can see social media taking the place when they are old enough to get online in that way.
3) LOLCATS. Ok, maybe not.
Can we live without social media?
Sure. We can live without all technology. But life would be a little more boring, at least for me. I enjoy my interactions online and have caught up with friends I haven’t spoken to in years who live far, far away. Would I die if my Facebook account went away tomorrow? No. But I would be sad. It enriches my life and I like having it there.
Lisa Chau has been involved with Web 2.0 since graduate school at Dartmouth College, where she completed an independent study on blogging. She was subsequently highlighted as a woman blogger in Wellesley Magazine, published by her alma mater. Since 2009, Lisa has worked as an Assistant Director at the Tuck School of Business. In 2012, she launched GothamGreen212 to pursue social media strategy projects. You can follow her on twitter.
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