Thursday, August 03, 2006

10 Principles for the Digital Family

Yesterday, I filled in for cultural conservative and public personality David Walsh of The National Institute on Media and the Family on the SIGGRAPH panel on "Video Games: Content and Responsibility," when Walsh ducked the opportunity for dialogue with makers of digital content because of a "scheduling conflict."

So I should be well-qualified to make my own official list of "cyber-safety" tips.

1) Play with Your Child

Dr. Spock revolutionized child care a half-century ago by stating that the first rule to new parents should be "enjoy your baby." With longer workdays for parents and ramped up expectations in school and society for kids, it can be easy to forget to play with them as they get older. Your personal preference may be to have your child cream you in chess rather than in a first-person shooter, but if you aren't willing to play digitally, you are likely to be widening the generation gap. There are lots of good, less-publicized choices out there. Consider something like the award-winning, fun-for-all-ages game Cloud from students at USC and their faculty advisor Tracy Fullerton, which can be downloaded free and played on a home computer. Should you already own a game controller, the Japanese game Katamari Damacy only requires you to invest a Jackson in a nonviolent but genuinely wacky family-friendly game. If you are intimidated by videogames, explore other opportunities for creative play. For starters, you could have fun with music-making machines like Pate a Son from le ciel est bleu or the Indian Shankar Drum Ganesh Machine, or a paint animation like Jackson Pollock by Miton Manetas.

2) Go Low Budget

You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on expensive controllers, games, and software for digital family fun. A megabucks game from a Hollywood franchise might not bring you any closer to your child. Instead, consider these four options.

A. Free open source software that lets your kids create games, animations, movies, and audio remixes like the 3-D modeling program Blender or the sound mixing program Audacity.
B. Free 30-day-trials of otherwise expensive corporate packages. Kids can make elaborate animated cartoons for the web and cell phones with Flash or make music with Sony Acid, although they may complain when the month is up.
C. For far less than the cost of a typical sixty dollar game, your kids can make their own games. Quest Creator, RPG Maker, and -- for the lover of virtual gore or mayhem -- FPS Creator are all within most family budgets.
D. Check out what comes with the machine. For example, a lot of Macs come with the versatile program iMovie.

3) Bring Digital Politics to the Dinner Table

Talk to your kids about new laws that limit or may limit users' digital rights. It's important that they understand the basics of copyright law and why they can't post their clever claymation video on YouTube or MySpace, if the soundtrack is a top ten hit owned by a megamedia company.

Luckily Creative Commons makes it possible for kids to find photos, sound samples, and film clips in the public domain. (Check out this video made by my thirteen-year-old to see an example.)

You might also want to point out how the arcane and obfuscatory language in user agreements can contain fine print that allows their personal information to be shared with third parties. Game playing devices can also store data from other software applications.

4) Be an Adbuster

The largely hidden issue about digital media is the insidious role that advertising can play with in-game advertising, viral marketing campaigns, and other stealth strategies to push consumerism on the young. To get conversation going, you can show kids funny and/or dumb examples of corporate websites, such as Subservient Chicken from Burger King, Hurra Torpedo from Ford, and I am Asian from McDonald's.

5) Distrust Ratings

Ratings systems, even the most well-meaning ones, may not give you as much useful information as a Google search. They may be better than nothing, but often they are not much better. For example, even though it is saddled with an "R" rating, the film Billy Elliot can be wonderful family viewing for older kids who might be inspired by the story of a working class British boy who endures ridicule because he pursues his talent for ballet. At the same time, many wildly inappropriate movies for children are labeled PG-13. Unfortunately, parents' groups that do more credible non-industry ratings sometimes are so focused on negative reviews that they overlook the positive ones. For example, the popular fitness-oriented game Dance Dance Revolution doesn't have a KidScore review.

6) Raise the Issue of Inappropriate Behavior Appropriately

Of course, we should talk to our kids about creepy adults, but we need to remember that most pedophiles still exploit face-to-face interactions far more commonly than chatrooms, online multiplayer game spaces, or social networking websites. That's not to say that there aren't potentially yucky encounters to be had on even innocuous sites like Runescape, but too much talk about "stranger danger" may not encourage your children to protect themselves against those who are nearer and dearer and more likely to abuse their power as adults. It's also important to include threatening and harassingng behavior that is non-sexual in the dialogue. Kids may be more willing to talk if you elicit their responses to your own experiences as a child with inappropriate behavior from adults.

7) Consider a Computer in the Kitchen

Julia Lupton, of Design-Your-Life, discusses the value of having a computer in the public space of the house, so that family members can collaborate on digital projects easily. Of course, teens need to have some opportunities for privacy to build trust. Reading e-mail and spying on their web surfing may be as counterproductive as perusing diary entries or listening in on telephone conversations. (I do read the online grade reports from my kids' schools quite carefully, but that seems to me a legitimate extension of my role as a knowledgeable caretaker and one that improves communication rather than impedes it.)

8) Know the Limits of Educational Games

Even the best educational videogame or software program is inferior to the best live teaching. Although a lot of interesting work on games and literacy has been done by James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins, Kurt Squire, and Constance Steinkuehler, it's important to be aware that kids may already be getting too much distance in their learning from schools that are increasingly oriented around scripted teaching and multiple choice tests. In other words, before you park your kid in front of the latest wonder from the Scholastic corporation, plan a trip to a museum, science center, historical site, concert hall, or library.

9) Set Boundaries

As the parent, you are entitled to make the house rules. This means you can specify the equipment to which your children have access or the hours they spend in front of a computer screen.

10) Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

No matter how you became a parent, you chose to have children because you love them. Older teens may be embarrassed by such signs of affection, but showing your kids that you love them benefits them for a lifetime. Digital media allow for opportunities to remind your kids that you think about them every day. The occasional e-mail with a Photoshopped image or funny link (like this clip art loop), goofy instant message, out-of-the-blue care package from an online vendor, or custom designed t-shirt or knick-knack can create moments of celebration to supplement more traditional expressions of interest like hugs and chats with the denizens of the backseat. It shouldn't take the place of kicking around the soccer ball or making homemade chocolate chip cookies, but contemporary life can create certain kinds of distance that technology can bridge.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love everything you're saying here Liz. I work with companies launching high quality products for kids in the toy, software and technology world and I'm going to pass along your ten rules to them. They are a great guidepost for product developers. We like to put the customer's need at the center of the product development process, instead of the need for ever larger quarterly profits. This will be another tool we will use to make digital products for our children more relevant and meaningful to our daily lives.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Shario said...

Very usefull post... Thanks...

7:57 AM  

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