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Wednesday 6 August 2014

Cybersecurity, children's use of social media, what's actually dangerous, and the research of Professor Donna Cross

Professor Donna Cross researches children's well-being, including cyber-safety. I had the privilege of hearing her give a quick summary of her research last night.

Unlike almost every other age group, the health of adolescents and children hasn't improved in recent decades. There are several dangers to children, which are of far greater significance than cyber-safety.
  • Children are still getting sunburnt regularly, with the attendant risk of skin cancer.
  • Children are becoming obese at a terrifying rate, and not getting enough exercise. This has short-term and long-term health implications.
  • Children can't cross roads safely. Particularly children under 10, who are cognitively challenged:
    • They expect moving objects to change shape. A horse running changes shape. A soccer ball spins. Cars don't, so they have a cognitive block that makes it harder for them to perceive that the car is moving.
    • Audio-location (identifying where a sound comes from) doesn't really come together until after age 10. Between not being able to hear or see that a car is moving, there aren't many ways you can sense the danger of a distant car.
    • Very young children assume that if they can see the driver, the driver can see them.
  • Children are spending less time engaging with their peers face-to-face, so they are less able to understand subtle facial expressions. This makes them less able to build and maintain friendships. In addition, they are talking to adults less.
It turns out that this last risk (which sounds unimportant) is actually quite significant. One of the best predictors of school and personal achievement turns out to be the ability to engage socially with others. Children need to have a strong social network in order to thrive. It even affects the strength of their immune response to infection. Against this, cyber-security seems like a very minor concern. But since I can't really say anything useful about physical safety or paediatric development, I'll focus on the cyber issues anyway.

Professor Cross mentioned the well-known decline in Facebook usage among young teens. Facebook is how middle-aged women reconnect with their school peers now. Instead, children are using Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit. She spoke about much else, but as someone who can talk for hours about the impact of computing on society, this was something that grabbed my attention. The "adult" social media platforms (such as LinkedIn, Quora and Facebook) are very strong on mapping user accounts to individuals. These are sites where you build reputation and invest time and effort to show your significance to your peers. These are not the sites that young teens are involved in. Instead they are flocking to sites where the culture is that the matching of your username to a real person is a matter of some shame, embarrassment or at least disaster

There are throwaway accounts on Facebook, but on reddit (for example) there are cultural norms about using them.

  • Creating a throwaway to gripe about your school teacher is the safest thing to do; don't use your normal account. 
  • Don't create a throwaway to vote up your post, though, that's inappropriate; use your normal account instead. 
  • Similarly to adults on ebay, don't get too attached to your reputation on any of these sites because you might need to discard it quickly.
Most children won't understand this initially. Some pick it up intuitively immediately: my daughter has more than one instagram account, and switches depending on what she's trying to do. But most children will need it explained. We have pushed the message "have different passwords on different sites", but it is far more important to explain to you children "you need to have many nicknames, and be prepared to create new ones, and discard the old like you do with clothes". Children see the behaviours of celebrities on-line as "normal". Very few children realise that it is a polished image with many of their other interactions completely hidden from the public. We need to help our children cultivate personae, and to understand the limits of reasonable disinformation and obscurity. I think this is a reasonable laundry list of discussions every parent should have with their children:
  • Have you thought up a couple of different usernames? Are they in use by anyone else in the world? Are these usernames so different that no-one could guess that they belong to the same person?
  • For each username, what impression do you want it to portray? Is this the account you use for comedy? Or is this the account you will use for your deep, artistic content? Do you have an account you could use safely if you were confessing something bad you had done?
  • Which accounts will you let your friends know are yours, and which ones are you going to keep secret?
  • Do you know how to make a throwaway account? Do you know what a throwaway account is, and why it might be useful?
  • When will you use a throwaway?
  • On which sites and with which accounts will you put real information?
  • Is it appropriate to lie to create an account?
  • If you had to abandon this account, or if the account was taken over by someone maliciously, would you lose anything you cared about?
The challenge is of course, that most parents don't have the time to connect to Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit. Not least because Reddit can be dangerously addictive, as I've discovered. And even then, many adults aren't use to thinking in terms of multiple accounts, having grown up with their (solitary) corporate Active Directory account and their (solitary) Facebook account.

But that's OK. As a parent, it's perfectly OK to fob off some of this kind of "geek" conversation to other more qualified adults. It's important for children to have relationships with adults. Boys in particular are very reluctant to talk their parents or teachers about any problems they have. Is there a cousin or family friend that spends too much time on the internet, who you would trust to explain this sort of thing to your children? Make the effort to make this conversation happen with them then. Conversely, if you are a child reading this post, and you don't really have an answer to the questions on the laundry list, it would be well worthwhile talking to someone about this. Perhaps your parents, perhaps a teacher, or someone else that your parents trust.

Here are the three books I can find on Amazon that she has written:

Greg Baker is an author, computer geek, inventor, consultant, and parent. He is not particularly good at any of these. (

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