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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

One Big Room


The media is alive with concerns about measures and methods to control children's and young adults' access to the Internet. (See Seven Things All Adults Should Know About My Space.) Congress, having mandated filters with the Children's Internet Protection Act, also attempted to pass DOPA, the Defense against Online Predators Act, which would have required schools to block student access to all blogs (most notably MySpace), wikis, chatroomswell, nearly every resource that might be described as Web 2.0.

Sorry folks. Anyone who thinks he or she can control kids' access to online information or experiences through legislation or a filter is spitting in the wind. We are not facing a simple technical challenge. We are swimming against a cultural tide.

Neil Postman explains why in his book The Disappearance of Childhood (1982). It's been a while since I have read this book, but as I remember, Postman's arguments go something like this: Childhood is a social construct. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were simply treated as small adults. They dressed like adults; they worked like adults; they lived where adults lived; and they saw what adults saw. Adults and children before the second half of the 19th century all pretty much lived in one big room.

The rise in industrialization also gave rise to the concept of "childhood." Society started treating children differently than it did adults; separating them by dress, by activity, and especially in experience. We kept kids in their own rooms with very limited access to adult rooms -- for their own safety, of course.

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Postman argued that with the ubiquity of mass media (pre-Internet days), society no longer has the ability to keep children away from adult venues, sights and experiences. We've all been pushed back into one big room, as it were. Once again, kids see and experience what adults see and experience.

When I first started speaking about Internet filtering back in 1994, I'd ask workshop participants if they felt the following materials were appropriate for children to have access to:

  • "Sex After 35: Why It's Different, Why it Can be Better"
  • "Men & Sex: Their 7 Secret Wishes"
  • "How Our Sex Life Was Saved"
  • "Major New Sex Survey: What You Don't Know..."
  • "The Sexual Games of the American Male"
  • "He Wants What? Men's 6 Biggest Sexual Fantasies"
  • "The Sex Skill Men Adore (& How to Do It Well)"
  • "The Hugh Grant Syndrome: Why Guys Pay for Sex"
  • "Five Total Turn-Ons Men Can't Resist"

Everyone agreed that those were not materials suitable for kids -- and that they should be denied access to them.

"Too late," I'd say. "Each of those are headlines splashed on the front cover of popular magazines easily found near any supermarket checkout lane." And last I checked, those magazine headlines have not become less explicit.

This cultural shift that is removing the wall between the kids' and adults' rooms is unnerving to say the least. Our natural inclination as parents and educators (and even politicians, I suppose) is to shelter and protect. But responsible adults also recognize that it is in their children's best interest not to shelter, but to teach children how to protect themselves in the big, bad world.

We as adults are unsure about how to do that, however. According to a 2006 study by Harris Interactive, about a third of parents said they don't feel that they can teach their kids how to use the Internet safely. (Parents shaky about kids' safety online) How competent do we as educators feel about teaching kids good online safety practices? We'd better get good since 71 percent of parents in that same study felt that schools should be responsible for teaching Internet safety.

Teachers and parents would do well to buy and read MySpace Unraveled: What it is and how to use it safely, by Larry Magid and Anne Collier (Peachpit Press, 2006). Not only does this book help demystify MySpace, it alerts parents to far more likely "dangers" kids face when using the Internet, such as posting embarrassing information that might one day been seen by college recruiters or employers.

As we are all pushed further and further into one big room, we don't have a choice but to actively teach Internet safety. By blocking access to blogs and chat and other Internet resources in schools and homes, we are only denying kids access to those resources in places where actual adult instruction might occur. So just how ironic is that?

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