We had an important and thought provoking conversation this evening at home regarding digital ethics. For his 10th birthday, thanks to the generosity of my in-laws who were willing to negotiate a “trade” for their old titanium G4 Powerbook, my wife and I were able to give our 10 year old son his own laptop computer. He’s been using our laptops for several years (since he was at least five) so he’s quite proficient at the keyboard and online. Having his own laptop involves different responsibilities and questions, however, and tonight was a continuation of many conversations I’m sure we’ll be having about similar topics in the months and years ahead.

Since the week before Thanksgiving, Alexander has been playing Travian. Travian is a free, browser-based simulation game in which players manage the resources of their own village amidst the attacks of their neighbors. The one sentence description of the game on the website’s homepage is:

Travian is a browser game with a world full of thousands of users who all begin as the leaders of small villages.

One of Alexander’s cousins in Allen, Texas, taught him a little about the game when we were visiting in November. Since an email account is required to register, I created a Yahoo email “addressguard” account (which simply redirects into my main email account) and helped Alexander get registered. I checked out the site and learned enough about it to be satisfied that it seems appropriate for a 10 year old, as well as highly complex and challenging as a live, multi-player simulation game. It’s been quite interesting to discuss his experiences in the game, which have included many mis-steps and “failures,” but always LOTS of learning and LOTS of reading. Alexander has agreed to be interviewed soon about his experiences to date with the game, and I’m looking forward to that. (In exchange, he’s having me register as a player in the game, and is hoping we can form an alliance and share resources.)

This evening Alexander discovered several videos on YouTube about the game Travian, and showed them to me. Aside from some animated violence, the only objectionable thing I saw on the two movies he found was a profane word in the first video. Given the fact that Travian does NOT have any animated graphics, but plays more like an online board game, we both found these videos to be highly creative. I am not sure what program the author of these videos used to make the stop motion animation, but it must have taken MANY HOURS to do. The author’s movie which Alexander liked the most is “Travian The Movie The Gallic Wars.” (Remember there is one word of written profanity in this, so beware if you show this to young eyes.)

I found it interesting in exploring the other videos created by this YouTube contributor that his/her final video, posted a month ago, is titled “Im Quitting Travian.” In the one minute video, the gameplayer and stop motion video creator explains that the game consumes too much time, so s/he is discontinuing play. I found this quite interesting: A public announcement by a young person (at least judging by the infrequent typos and grammatical errors in the videos) that they are choosing to exercise some digital self-discipline. Pretty admirable, really.

This game and these videos raise some worthwhile issues and questions, but in this post I want to focus on the main question which arose this evening regarding registration for the YouTube website. Since Alexander enjoys visiting YouTube from time to time, and has found some pretty amazing videos there in the past (as have I) I suggested he register for a YouTube account. With a registered account, he’d be able to add favorite videos to playlists, and the site would also track all the videos he has watched. (Something of value from a parent’s perspective.) When he completed the registration fields, however, he was told that the information he provided indicated he was not eligible to have a YouTube account.

The problem? He is under 13 years old, and YouTube requires that registered users be at least 13.

We discussed this situation together and with mom. Alexander remembered that I had changed my birthdate on MySpace to 1900 sometime in the past, to try and avoid receiving unwanted emails from other users apparently targeting males in my age demographic. (Those weren’t his words, of course, but he did remember that I had “changed my age on YouTube so I was a hundred years old.” He remembered me changing my birthdate on a website for a good reason, basically.)

I take the issues of honesty and integrity very seriously. I do not want to encourage anyone to lie or be dishonest, and certainly not my own children. I do think, philosophically, there are cases where lying can be justified, but I do not want to digress on that right now. I do want to note that this was a very serious and important conversation, and not something I or we as a family took lightly.

We ended up deciding that it was OK for Alexander to register for YouTube, but we would do so with my birthdate using my email address alias. (The same one we used to set up his Travian account.) We did this because we think it is important for Alexander to learn how to explore the web within boundaries and limits, and we want to maintain open lines of communication about what he does and finds online. We have talked about inappropriate content on the web before, and did again this evening, but to date the profanity in the above YouTube video is the extent of “inappropriate” stuff I think he’s seen. The only thing he says his friends at school discuss regarding Internet websites is Webkinz. I ended up registering him for a Google Account, which interestingly does NOT require people to enter their birthdate though the same age restriction applies, and then logged into YouTube and created a new account with my birthdate for him there.

I wondered if I should blog and reflect on this, and decided to do so because I’m sure there are other parents out there who are facing similar issues. I like the fact that since he has a Gmail and Google account established, and we enabled the “web history” feature, his Google virtual footprints will be recorded. Of course there are ways for people to circumvent that, along with the tracking of YouTube viewed videos, but at this point I don’t think that is a concern or realistic. I realize when Alexander is older (in not too many years down the road, when he leaves home) he’ll be surfing the Internet without my supervision. I want, therefore, to help prepare him for the ethical and responsible decisions he’ll need to make on his own someday in terms of Internet content. This is a challenging proposition. I feel good, however, that we made the right decision this evening. We’ll see how this goes. Are there videos on YouTube that I don’t want him to watch? Certainly. Ultimately, however, he has a shared responsibility to use the technology at his fingertips and the information resources to which he is connected in ethical and appropriate ways. I see this as a two way street. All the responsibility for protecting him on the Internet and insuring that he is using technology appropriately does not fall solely on my shoulders. Part of that responsibility also falls on his.

I think this same idea should apply to student Internet access in our schools. Unfortunately, a situation has developed in many U.S. schools where the school administration and teaching cadre are held solely responsible for the appropriateness of websites which students choose to access at school. Certainly there are cases of students accidentally stumbling upon objectionable web content while doing an apparently innocent web search. (Often this happens when Google Safesearch is not appropriately configured.) For other cases, however, when students are choosing to go to websites not appropriate because of their content or the time and context when and where the students choose to access the sites (Webkinz may be appropriate, but not during instructional class time) then I think students should shoulder a significant portion of the responsibility for their online activities and choices.

Is Alexander going to get banned from Gmail or YouTube because he is 10 and not yet 13 years old? I don’t know. I hope not. I do think, however, as concerned, involved, and communicating parents, we’re on the right track as far as trying to support and cultivate responsible and ethical online behavior for our children. I’m sure we’ll run into situations far more interesting and difficult to work through than our conversation tonight, in the months ahead. Hopefully, open lines of communication will be maintained so we can work through those situations which are bound to come up together.

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  • http://edtechlearning.weebly.com David Robb

    I think your approach to handling your son’s online activities is an excellent model of balance. You are giving Alexander the opportunity to explore and, in turn, the chance to seek out knowledge that benefits him while still keeping an eye on his online activities.

    However, I don’t know if I agree with you that administrators and teachers are held “solely” responsible for the appropriateness of websites students access. If students are purposefully going on websites they shouldn’t I would think that would be equivalent to any other act of insubordination and the student would be held accountable for their actions, not the teacher. At least that’s how it would work at my school.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    David: It’s good students are held responsible for their decisions about where they go online. I think it’s fair to say that is the case in most schools, so my comment may need more explanation. It seems to me that many parents assume if their students (or other students) go places they shouldn’t online at school, then that is the school’s fault and the content filter isn’t strict enough. The assumption seems to be (at least in many cases, and I acknowledge this is a general perception on my part that is not backed up by research or evidence) that the school should have a more strict content filter to deal with off task or inappropriate student use of the Internet. MySpace and YouTube are examples. I’ve been in schools where administrators and teachers have praised their content filter for keeping students off YouTube. Rather than deal with student choices and behavior on an individual basis, the school has chosen to simply block sites. This is true of instant messaging software as a general rule too. Most schools seem to assume that IM software has no instructional or valid use in school, it’s use would be frivolous and therefore inappropriate in all contexts, so it is blocked as both an application and a website destination on the network.

    Those are examples of educator perceptions of how to handle appropriate Internet use by students, and a general preference I see for using the content filter to block websites rather than deal with student behavior choices and hold students accountable for their decisions. On the parent side, I have heard of cases where parents are angry “at the school” when their child has accessed something they should not, rather than holding their own child accountable for their actions. This is probably a more general issue, where many parents today (or at least “some,” maybe the word “many” isn’t justified) are very confrontational with school officials and tend to place blame for problems on the school in virtually every case, rather than holding their own children accountable. That personality type or accountability orientation type is certainly not the general rule for everyone, so maybe I am overgeneralizing. I do think our emphasis in schools needs to be more on individual accountability for our actions, where we choose to go online, rather than viewing cases of inappropriate student use of the Internet as fundamentally a problem that needs to be solved with a stricter content filter. I think our schools need systems where individual website use is documented with virtual breadcrumbs by login, and that list of accessed websites is viewable by both parents and teachers, as well as individual students for their own virtual online “history.” Systems like PowerSchool which allow parent and student access to attendance records and grades should be upgraded to permit access to individual login histories. Certainly proxy sites can and are used to bypass a system like this, but this system would show the use of proxy sites– and conversations should then ensue about why a proxy site is being used by the student in question. I don’t know of any schools currently using a system like this for online behavior accountability, but I think schools should be, certainly schools that are 1:1, but also others.

  • http://edtechlearning.weebly.com David Robb

    Thanks for the clarification. I agree exactly with you’re saying. Maybe I just happen to be lucky that a parent hasn’t confronted me about inappropriate websites but I know it happens; I just haven’t experienced it myself.

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  • http://parentovershoulder.com Nancy

    I believe the hardest road to take in parenting regarding technology is the middle one–use with supervision and limits. I also think it’s usually the best road for most kids. So, hats off to you for really thinking this one through. The one minefield I’ve been wary of for my own 10-year-old is YouTube. I try and hover closely when he’s visiting. YouTube does have a system for flagging adult content–which then can only be viewed by those 18 or older–but it relies on users to do the flagging. So, I’m thinking there may be content I wouldn’t want my son to see that is new enough that it hasn’t been flagged yet, or that adults viewing wouldn’t consider offensive but would be considered so through the eyes of a parent. For example, I’ve seen at least one video in which the graphics were fine, but the audio was not.

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