Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Adults and MySpace (2)

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 29, 2006

Ritchie Boyd covers a lot of ground, but at the risk of oversimplifying, I'll sum up the argument as follows:

Adults won't behave, and therefore are harmful to kids. Thus, we should either keep the kids out of the adult space, or keep the adults out of the kid space.

I agree that adults won't behave. There will always be adults who behave inappropriately toward kids, no matter how we define 'inappropriately'. There will always be some adults who pose a danger to kids, whether it is in the form of dangerous ideas, dangerous influences, or even physical danger.

My disagreement is with the proposed solution.

Now first of all I should be clear that I have no real problem with the idea of setting up a kids-only space (though I am a bit cynical about how opportunistically some such spaces are being set up). But I certainly do not think such spaces are anything like the solution people make them out to be. Because:
- you can't force the kids to stay there, especially if the parents don't want to force them to stay there
- it's really hard to keep the adults out - even if you can prevent adults from pretending they're kids, adults will still be running these sites
- kids behave badly too, and the issues involved in policing kids are even more complex than those involved in policing adults

That's why the comparison between a site like MySpace and a cocktail bar or adult party is more compelling. Such a space is very clearly an adult space, and by and large, we have had more success keeping kids out of adult spaces. Moreover, there is more agreement that kids should be kept out of such spaces. By no means universal agreement, but enough that one can see the force of the analogy.

But what constitutes an 'adult' space? The presupposition here is that 'MySpace' is - or should be thought of as - an 'adult' space. But if this is the case, then by the same reasoning, any site in which people are able to post their own content is an 'adult' space. This would include message boards, Yahoo and Google groups, Usenet, web hosting sites (such as Geocities), blogging sites (such as Blogger and LiveJournal), and other social networks.

If we ban children from these spaces - and additionally, from the commercial sites, such as news and entertainment sites, to name a couple - then there is nothing left of the internet for them to view except government, commercial and educational sites oriented specifically toward children, sites that have very strict guidelines on what can be posted. In effect, by declaring everything else as 'adult space', we are creating a 'kid space' out of what's left.

Though this is the gist of legislation currently proposed in the U.S. government, few people, I think, would agree that this is a satisfactory solution. It would be like treating the entire city as though it were like a cocktail bar and restricting kids to schools and homes, on the grounds that they might see an offensive poster or even be at risk of being abducted. And nobody would accept such a restriction, even though we all agree that kids are at a certain level of risk in the city. We're happy to keep them out of the bars and the clubs, but the idea of keeping them off Main Street and away from the neighbourhood park is abhorrent.

And even if we were to accept such a solution, we are still faced with the problems facing the kids-only space. How do we police these spaces? How do we keep the adults out, and how do me make the kids behave? And even more: how do we define what areas are adults-only and kids-only? It may be true that some parents do not want their kids to see any adult material, but others are more permissive. In my case, I would not want my kids to be exposed to excessive violence and to commercial advertising. Could we ever design a kid-safe area that would satisfy all parents? That would keep kids safe?

I doubt it. And I think most parents doubt it, which is why they turn to the use of content filters. The internet as a whole cannot be made kid-safe, they reason, but the kid's own computer can be. And a lot of the objections of kid-only areas can be overcome. There's no need to try to satisfy everybody; you can set your own filter to your preferences, and let other parents decide on how they want to set their preferences. And you don't need to worry about unknown adults managing the kid-safe area; anything likely to come up will be caught by the filters.

I can see many benefits to the use of content and software filters, and despite my misgivings about the motives behind some of them, agree that the address the needs of many parents. They suffer, however, from one major flaw: they only work where they are installed. Which means that if the kid accesses the internet from outside the home, then the filters are no longer effective, because they are no longer present. For the filter to protect the kid, it must be installed at all points of access.

There are two major places kids can access the internet outside the home: schools and libraries. Thus, in order for filters to work, they must also me installed in schools and libraries. But now, the major advantages of filters have disappeared. Kids learn to get around the filters. Unscrupulous adults learn how to send content through the filters. But even worse, there's no real agreement on how the filters should be set. Should they ban all sites that include the word 'breast'? 'Bra?' 'Terror?'

The problem is that the parental act - protecting the kid - very quickly becomes a political act - programming the kid. How will school boards respond to demands by Muslims that the schools filter all sites with references to eating pork? Or to demands that all photos of women with their ankles showing be blocked? You may think these restrictions are frivolous, but other people think that restricting the showing of breasts or discussions of Satanism are equally frivolous. I would lobby hard to stop fast food restaurants from marketing to kids - I think it's exploitive. Would you think my concerns are frivolous?

But even more: what about other types of internet access? The governments of China and Iran have found the major flash points to be internet cafes and internet service providers. Adults use these services, so they can't simply be filtered to protect kids. Moreover, they are operated beyond the watchful eyes of parents and administrators. While it is true that money is needed to access the service, nothing stops kids from hanging around and just watching. And nothing stops kids with money at all.

The problem with protecting kids by regulating what kids can see boils down, therefore, to this: as soon as you attempt to extend that protection outside the home, your own ideas about what is safe and proper come into conflict with others' ideas, and this problem becomes more and more intractable the more diverse society becomes and the wider the area you seek to govern.

And my own concern is this: when such matters become a matter for decision-making by governmental authorities, then the voices of those who profit most by exploiting and in some way injuring your kids become the loudest and the most influential. While it is always the hope of parents that governmental controls will eventually reflect their own values, this rarely ever happens.

Consider how the government conducts itself in other areas: with respect to the environment, for example. Or crime. Or regulation of movies, the arts, television. Is the government adhering to your values here? Almost certainly not! It certainly does not adhere to mine. And therefore, a standard for internet access appropriate for kids will most likely also not adhere to your values. What would you get? You'd get sites where the next Britney Spears flaunts her prepubescent sexuality while sipping Diet Pepsi and munching on a Big Mac, sites where Captain Copyright tells kids that sharing is wrong, sites where protesters and activists are dismissed as trouble-makers or worse, sites where willing kids submit their personal info to a benevolent corporate mascot. How do we know? Because that's what's considered appropriate today an sites like Channel One.

You can't keep your kids off the street, just as you can't keep them off the internet. And you can't make everybody in the streets respect what you think is safe and proper conduct, just as you can't make everybody on the internet behave. So what are you going to do?

In my view, there is really one effective course of action:

First, you have to become more tolerant. You will see, and your kids will see, some things you think are disgusting. There's no way around that. Just as I cannot escape Ronald McDonald and the KFC Bucket, neither can you escape Britney Spears or worse. Our diverse society means that people feel free to express and exhibit their valied lives and lifestyles. This also applies online, even more so, because people are much more able to express themselves online. Sites like goatse will always exist, and worse, there will always be someone out there that think such sites are appropriate. You have to learn to simply roll your eyes and move along. It's a big world.

Second, you have to teach your kids to play safe. You can't keep all the cars off the road, so you teach your kid not to play in the road, and to at least look if he or she must cross. The same with online behaviour. Kids can and should be taught simple things, like maintaining their privacy and being cautious about strangers. Kids need to learn scepticism, critical thinking, logical self-defense. Media literacy becomes as important as mathematics in this new environment. Yes, you can protect your kids, but only for a time. And protection will never be sufficient in the long run; eventually the kids will be exposed to the wider world, and they will need the values and skills that allow them to thrive in it.

And third, you can allocate the responsibility for bad behaviour where it lies: with the adults who behave badly. People who exploit, molest, or otherwise abuse kids, whether online or offline, should be dealt with by society as predators, because they are a social danger. People who act like boors online should be publicly shunned. Our own actions online (and remember, the kids will see that Usenet post from 1995) should reflect the values we seek to inspire in our kids, whatever those values may be. We need to be upfront in behaving properly, and promoting proper behaviour.

This is the hard road. It's hard, because it means we have to adapt to a wider world, because we have to take the time to teach our kids, and because we have to take care of our own conduct. But it's the only effective course of action. Yes, there's always somebody selling the one-button solution. But people trying to convince you that this piece of software or that piece of legislation will do the job for you are con artists. They are, indeed, the very predators from whom you need to protect your kids. And yourselves.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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