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.

Teen Mobile Panel – Sept 09

Next Saturday morning (26th Sept 09) I will be running a Dragon’s Den style panel with four teenage Dragons and pitches from mobile application developers.

This is a session at OTA 2009 – 24 Hours of Mobile Development, Imperial College London, September 25 – 26, 2009. Over the Air is a grassroots mobile developer event, organised by Betavine, Lonely Planet, and OMTP.

My objectives are to
1. Provide an opportunity for developers to get feedback to their products from a live panel of teenagers
2. Reinforce the importance of user input in the development process
3. Provide some insights on current attitudes / lifestyle of our sample modern day teens

I am looking forward to a lively, practical and insightful session with a ban on technical jargon!

Tweenter – A Design & Insights Challenge

Along the theme of interesting digital real life case studies to use in work-related learning school sessions – how about the challenge of designing a version of Twitter that appeals more to Teens? “Tweenter” if you will.

We know that teens are following their fave celebrities on Twitter but that they are not really adopting the other capabilities that it offers. We have also seen many different user interfaces pop up in this space – Tweetdeck and Tweetmeme as examples.

This would be a really engaging challenge as an innovation case study where I would guide teams of students through the innovation process and also give opportunities to practice other work related skills such as teamwork, communication, presentation and so on. This would also lend itself well as a practical exercise to support a marketing, design or business syllabus.

Teach the Digital Teach

A couple of ideas here to encourage teachers in schools to use digital teaching resources:

1. I heard from Jude Ower (from Digital 2.0) yesterday that a school in Aberdeenshire has different games consoles in each classroom – see this amazing Futurelab report she helped to research that explores the educational properties of gaming – http://bit.ly/2lVCaw

2. Many teachers are really good with ICT, creating engaging digital learning experiences for their students. I would encourage schools to cross skill – perhaps introduce a credit system where teachers that invest time training other teachers will receive some benefits in return.

3. Teachable.net offer free ICT training for teachers – with budget cuts in teacher development this is a great option – along with their collection of resources. See www.teachable.net.


Just in case you have not thought about this before – “digital natives” – i.e. the generation that are at school today are going to engage better with digital delivery rather than text books-based learning. Of course this assumes that the digital plans are created well – something that Teachable and others can help with.

Carpets or Virtual World?

At one school session using a real-life case study about a teenage virtual world, the business challenge for the students was to define an engaging product feature that the company should work on next.

One bright spark said, “Hang on a minute. I just gave you a good idea. If they decide to do my idea, then I should get paid for that.” I asked him whether he would rather do a case study about carpet manufacturing (the previous year’s exercise in which I was not involved) or do this year’s study on a product that they were really interested in? After processing, he nodded indicating he knew he got a much better deal this year.

There is no doubt that bringing a real-life case study on the cutting edge of digital innovation plays a large part toward engaging a group of teens. You should have seen the students’ fascination when talking through the business model at the start!

Ordinarily the most disruptive member of the class

In the very early days when volunteering in schools, I used a fictitious case study about a chocolate manufacturer who had made too many chocolates in the run up to Valentines Day. The students’ task was to generate some ideas of how they could package and sell the overrun of chocolate.

I started by asking the class who they thought the chocolate manufacturers were targeting, “What chocolates do you see when you walk into a news agent around Valentines Day?” They responded that the chocolate offerings were very girly and old-fashioned and seemed to be marketed for older women. Thus began a dialogue about market segmentation.

The student ordinarily the most disruptive member of the class said, “Can I make a chocolate box for the gays?” My eyes lit up. This was a good example of an under-served market.and I explained the value of “the pink pound.” Master Disruptive could not believe that he was not thrown out of class and he seemed chuffed to be commended on his idea. It felt as if praise was a stranger to him.

His team created a chocolate box with a rather cheeky gimmick and slogan to sell the chocolates to “the pink pound” market. Another group chose to market to the single mother market. They pondered, “I would love to give my mother chocolates on Valentines Day becuase I love her.” They produced a “For my mum on Valentines” offering.