When it comes to the advancement of online culture and technology, one of the things that nags at the back of my mind, on a regular basis, is how Internet professionals are strategizing to protect users under the age of 18 from the growing amounts of threats and risks that come with using even the most benign social networking application.
If you think about it, the average adult who utilizes social networking as a regular part of their social life can face the risk that include identity theft, contracting viruses on their computer, being mislead by the people they are "friends" with, being cyberstalked, cyberbullied, abused and harassed... just looking at the tip of the iceberg.
The potential risks and threats to a functioning, normal, well balanced adult using social networking aren't even completely known and understood, given that with every advancement of technology, every new Facebook or YouTube or virtual world or dating site, one eventually hears a report - in the news or from word-of-mouth - of someone exploiting the application or user to nefarious ends.
We, as a community, are unable to prevent these threats and risks for adults. Hackers and griefers and trolls are crafty and prolific. Why then would anyone in their right mind ignore the fact that the Internet rarely discriminates or prohibits use of application based on age? That's right: it's an egalitarian society, the Internet.
Users are not sorted and discriminated on based on age. Or, if they are, then crafty teens (the next craftiest segment of the human population following crafty hackers, griefers and trolls,) just lie about their age in order to circumvent the system... better known as the "damn the man" philosophy of Internet use.
Seriously. Kids are smart and are able to manipulate the system so that they can do exactly what they want online. I witnessed this first hand in the year and some odd change that I was the Content and Community Manager for Meez.com. And, of course, the adults were the last to catch on to this fact.
So what has happened in response is that developers and entrepreneurs have begun to build spaces designed for the teen demographic - a powerful buying demographic, in its own right, with the power of Mom and Dad's money behind their purchase choices. These forums, worlds, applications are designed to be "safe spaces" for kids to grow and play and interact online in a healthy manner. But, adults are just as capable of lying down to use interfaces which are not intended for 18+ users.
Hence, we are right back where we started with a pretty serious threat level for kids online.
Parents can do a lot to minimize the risk their kids face online. Not relying on the Internet to be a digital babysitter and talking to their kids about their online social life is a good start.
Companies are doing what they can to minimize the risks to their under 18 users by employing strong community management staffs and training user volunteers to be good community watchdogs. But, when you have a thriving community of three million unique users, it's veritably impossible to be everywhere in your product's infrastructure at once, watching everything that goes on... Even if you have 24/7 community management in place. You just cannot be everywhere at once.
No matter how mature, children crave and require boundaries and rules and structure and guidance to help them learn how to interact in society. In order to thrive, kids need to be educated, led by example, protected and disciplined when necessary.
So what do you do ensure that kids and tweens and teens using online applications are safe and are being interacted with in a way that will help them to grow up into functioning, healthy adults?
There are no clear cut answers about this. Which is why I am so happy to see an event like the Kidzonline (un)Conference being planned.
Next Monday, 12 October, in San Francisco there will be the second meeting of this kind to discuss these issues with professional practitioners, parents and the very constituents who we are seeking to improve the system for.
According to co-organizer, Kaliya Hamlin, Kidzonline is for "Online Community/Virtual World Managers, policy officers and security officers at large companies, consultants in the kids online space, identity technologists, state attorney generals, legislative staffers, parents and kids, academics in the field and bloggers."
If you're in the SF Bay Area and would like to attend, there are still open spots left for this event. You can register on EventBrite at: http://kidsonline2.eventbrite.com/
Follow Kate's live coverage of the Kidzonline (un)Conference on 12 October on Twitter @adorkablegrrl or #BBKO