SXSW: Kids on the Web

Some days, while I chew away on some social design challenge for some client my mind drifts to a recurring question:

"Why are we doing this now, when we know we’re going to have to redesign and rethink absolutely everything when today’s kids get a bit older"

Kids today really are different than generations past. My 80+ year old grandfather has always said that kids of any generation are the same as kids all generations. While that’s true to some extend, I honestly feel that kids growing up today are in a radically different situation than ever before. Digital communication has changed the way they interact, the way they learn, and even the way their brains form.

It’s a scary and confusing time to be trying to figure out how to communicate and/or market to them.

The "Under 18 Blogs, Wikis, & Social Networking" panel at SXSW was a fascinating discussion of current and future issues of kids growing up digital today. I’ve outlined a few of my key take-aways below, but be sure to check out this great write-up too.

Mortal Danger vs. Fulfilling Potential

One of the early points in the session was that there are two conflicting positions for kids online. To paraphrase:

Young people are…

  • …in constant mortal danger
  • …fulfilling their inner potential

In some ways this really is a A vs. B point, not a A & B point. The reality of how many kids are truly facing mortal danger online is far overblown. But true or not, there’s a recurring theme that kids (and their parents) are having to make decisions as to whether to expand their minds or create walls for protection.

Whatever the right way to think about it, I think it’s a good way to describe how many of the non-digital parents and marketers are thinking about things today.

What are the real issues?
One point that came up a number of times is that cyber-bullying is a far bigger issue than pedophiles. Of course many people feel that one online pedophile is as big of an issue as thousands of serious cyber-bullying issues. Just like drunk driving kills vastly more people than many diseases that get far more attention.

One panelist even pointed out that online cheating is probably the biggest issue that kids are challenged with online. (TurnItIn.com is doing some interesting things on this front)

Danah Boyd mentioned that in her research, she had gone to a rural city to do a study with 25 girls. They all used the Web regularly, just like most other kids. But of the 25, not one of them knew what a pedophile was. There is a serious education problem at work here.

"Wikis scare the hell out of teachers"
This was a really interesting quote from the panel. The core point was that instead of individual assessment, which is relatively easy for teachers to manage, the concept (and spirit) of wikis and wiki culture is that students are suddenly "contributing to the real work of the world". As Anastasia points out in her book, the idea that kids are delicate flowers that should be sheltered from the "real work of the world" is a relatively new invention. In centuries past, kids and teens have played a huge role in the evolution of society and culture.

The idea that a kid may be failing his assignments, yet contributing incredible articles to Wikipedia or code to Firefox… how do you now measure true potential?

Once again it seems like the education system is the last to catch-up with the realities of the world around them…

We need social workers, not security guards
Another great point from Danah Boyd was that we need to start treating places like MySpace as "civic spaces", not web technologies. She advocated that rather than treating the issues on sites like MySpace with a policing mindset, sending security guards out to stop the troublemakers, that we should instead send social workers (sociologists, psychologists, etc) instead. "Let’s take care of the people, not ban the technology". Well said.

Quote of the year (again from Danah – surprise): "Technology doesn’t solve social problems, social education solves social problems. Techies and PR people don’t find real solutions, kids psychologists do."

Redefine the Stranger Narrative
Remember the "Don’t talk to strangers"? This never was quite accurate, as Danah pointed out. After all, you could talk to a shopkeeper or a policeman. They were just as much of a stranger as anyone else, but they had a role in your life. That role lead to a type of trust.

We should be re-contextualize and expanding our discussion of what trust means with our kids, and what defines a stranger.

Random other points
A few other random bits…

  • MySpace breakups – removes the "he said, she said" of an offline-only breakup.
  • We shouldn’t forget that "under 18" is a massive age group, focused on many different demographics.
  • Tech/Internet has been great for the shy kids (Jake’s note: Has it really though? Or has it allowed shy kids to retreat even further?)
  • Kids aren’t actually as tech literate as we assume they are. Being able to copy and paste a background image from someone else’s MySpace page isn’t the same as being truly tech savvy.
  • Mobile!
  • Iterative design is the only way to work with kids