Safety : Young People in Virtual Environments

Based on my experience working with virtual online community spaces for young people, I was asked to be on a panel at Professor Richard Bartle’s Protecting and Engaging Kids in Virtual Spaces Forum, October, 2009. Here are my thoughts from the event:

1. Useful stats about young people’s online usage
Marc Goodchilld from the BBC quoted some really useful stats from Childwise Report 2009. These stats relate to 5 – 16 year olds in the UK
• 87% go online
• 55% own computer
• 37% access in own room
• 33% of 9-10 year olds go online – that increases to 59% for the 11 – 12 year olds due mainly to them being driven online to do their homework.

2. Difficulties with engaging parents in the online safety of their children
The BBC children’s sites are one of the most popular sites in the UK and parents associate high levels of trust that it is safe and appropriate. However, there is evidence to suggest that many parents do not know what else their children are doing online. The Byron report suggests three areas for concern: inappropriate content; contact and conduct. There were some surprisingly low stats measuring parental concern around these areas. As “digital immigrants”, the parents simply do not have the time and in a lot of cases, the digital skills to be able to follow and monitor their children online.

There is a cry from many groups that parents should be educated to help their children understand what steps they should take to ensure that their children are safe online. There is a period of 8 – 10 years where these education programs are important as the next generation of parents will be digitally literate themselves – digital natives. There were some good examples of active education cited such as Sky who teach parents how to use pin locks when they install their services in the home.

As is the nature of technological innovation, there are continuous new developments that present both further ways to protect children online as well as further threats to child safety. For example, enabling live in game real time voice chat (through VoIP) presents moderation issues as it is both real time and difficult from a scalability point of view to support.

I was particularly concerned to hear about the “jigsaw effect” where it is easy to piece together what children have said in different message boards on different sites and for the unsavoury elements in society to build up quite a full picture of an individual.

3. Let’s engage young people to help us solve these safety issues
My passion is to engage users in designing solutions to the challenges that we face. Children are the digital natives – they understand what they do online better than the older generation that are making and implementing the policies. I talked about my tried and tested ways of engaging users that you can read about on the rest of my blog.

Tamara Littleton, who founded eModeration embraced these ideas around engaging users –
“The most crucial thing we can do to improve internet safety and enjoyment is education of the young users. Better than a purely didactic process which may be rejected by teenagers, is peer-to-peer leadership/mentoring, and input from the target group themselves as to what they want to learn and how it should be taught.”

Here is a picture of my panel – Kevin Holloway from Finesse Management, lil ol me and Tamara Littleton from eModeration.
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Engaging users also in the implementation of safety education, for example, giving them jobs in the virtual environment to help self-police, also provides good experience for them to build up a CV style portfolio and from a business point of view, is likely to create more user loyalty from those involved. It echoes the e-bay model of self-policing taken to a younger audience.

My view was also supported by information from Marc Goodchild at the BBC, where he pointed out that children as young as 10 have developed the abilities to discern malicious behaviour and they are able to take the necessary steps that a publisher provides them to report the incident.

Oisin Lunny from Sulake that own Habbo talked about some great examples of campaigns where it became cool to participate and spread the word – such as their Childline campaign, where users proudly collected and wore their badges. With the younger sites, such as the BBC, it is easier to craft engaging sites where the real time elements can be limited as they theorise that the user experience is more about enjoying activities online, playing together that may not require users to be able to communicate with each other in a free text live format.

4. Be open, honest and give young people the respect of being savvy!
Having worked with many young people, I also reinforced the message that young people are savvy and should be given the respect of open and honest communication from the site publishers. Creativity is necessary in getting safety messages delivered. I have found time over that young people do not sit and read text, however, if messages can be integrated in to the game play, perhaps using existing reward structures within virtual environments to incentivise safe behaviour and good active policing then like the Childline campaign in Habbo, users will help publishers to get their message across. To my point about user engagement, Habbo have had great success from their “Idea Agency” where they launched a virtual ad agency in Habbo, setting users challenges on how best to run campaigns in the Habbo environment – designed by users.

5. Recognise the power of Virtual Environments for their educational properties
The other topic that I raised was that we should recognise the educational properties of virtual environments. Futurebrand in a report associated with Becta, identified four ways that engagement in virtual environments can be educational:

1. Virtual environments are a persuasive medium that can affect young people’s thinking providing positive opportunities to inform young people about important contemporary issues such as injustice and the consequences of ideological conflict.
2. The Constructionist theory is that children’s development takes place through participation in a social world and interaction with people, events and objects. These are ideal platforms for young people to try out ideas, make decision, communicate with others and explore or make new worlds. It is active and participative rather than passive and merely receptive.
3. They enable us to create environments for authentic activity –learning occurs most successfully when it take place in authentic contexts. For example, learn about a historical period by exploring and interacting in a virtual environment that has re-created it. They also have to learn to deal with many inputs and outputs at the same time, collaborate with other players to take risks and experience failure in a safe environment. Some sites allow learners to adopt the identities and practices of professional innovators in a variety of fields. These are also the sorts of skills that will equip the younger generation for the 21st century and their work lives.
4. Media Literacy learning is often talked about as a positive educational take out from engagement with virtual environments. The futurebrand report also frames this excellently, referring to
a). Critical Consumption
The ability of learners to be able to read and produce media – to understand the politics – how media are produced, for what purposes and to what effects – how media organisations operate, how audiences receive and respond to different media and how the exchange between media produces and consumers impacts on social relations and culture
b). Creative Production
Young people become the designers and creators of media. They learn by constructing media, and having to consider design, distribution, representation and audience. Media literacy is important across the board not just for those in media studies.

One thought on “Safety : Young People in Virtual Environments

  1. Interesting points and absolutely agree that education and empowerment are key. Educating children about safety in the virtual world in the same way we do in the real world should be a given but a lot of children are far more net savvy than their parents. Giving chidlren the tools to help police their virtual worlds allows them to take responsibility. We know from our experience that they are very good at self policing and taking ownership. We must also bear in mind that there is a culture of fear fuelled in part by the media, around predators and online safety. While the “jigsaw effect” is very real and one case is one too many, we know the majority of abductions and much of the abuse that children suffer is at the hands ot people they already know in the real world. While virtual worlds have a responsibility to ensure best practise safety measures are in place, the culture of fear deflects from some of the other major issues chidlren face in the digital world, such as bullying. When bullying moves online it can have even more damaging effects as postings and images remain live for all to see.
    As you rightly say any discussions on safety need to include chidlren so we can learn from them and provide them with the tools to deal with issues they encounter and allow them to be creative in a safe and fun environment.

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