Tony Parkin rolls back the years to view social networking through a child's eyes
Copy Cat, Role Player, Control Freak, Tribal Sharer, Identity Explorer, Confident Consumer. Aspects of children's development that any primary teacher or parent would recognise (see above), but here, as the last category suggests, it was marketing might that was exploring the impact of socialising changes on children, and the relevance of these behaviours to pre-teen social networking.
"Social networking for 6 to 11-year-olds" could suggest a dystopian future. But considering whether Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters should be “Facebook with stabilisers” to help kids deal with the challenges of social networking was only one aspect of an informative session looking at the world of primary-age children socialising online.
Focusing on the typical age-related categories for 6 to 12-year-olds of Control Freak, Tribal Sharer and Identity Explorer, there was much for the educator to learn and share about the socialisation stages and behaviours of children, although I suspect many may have been uncomfortable that the marketing pound was never far from view. But you can make up your own mind – a recording of the complete session is still available online.
Part of London's Social Media Week, 'educators seemed notable by their absence'
This event, part of London's recent Social Media Week, featured an impressive panel and attracted an equally informed audience. Both were largely composed of those whose job it is to reach out to children via their online spaces. Most of the company names represented on the panel would not be familiar to educators, but the products and services considered definitely would be, as names like Little Big Planet, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin and some of the BBC's online offerings were bandied about in a lively debate by those whose job it is to provide or promote them. Part of the week's Education and Learning strand, educators seemed notable by their absence, as did, mercifully, any tabloid reporters that might be looking for that "toddlers on the internet" shock story.
Chaired by Marc Goodchild, strategy consultant and converged media specialist at IpDipSkyBlue, a company so new that its website was still under construction, the panel included Graeme Harvey (CEO and co-founder of Tsumanga Studios), Tom Walker (community manager with Tempero) and Maurice Wheeler (strategic planning director for Doco London). And it was Maurice Wheeler who opened with a brief presentation that offered the categorisation above and some insights into what this means for the provision of social networking for children. Even if you don't want to follow through the whole debate, I am sure that 15 minutes spent watching some of the four-part recording would pay dividends for any educator.
Some of the key things that Maurice singled out as important for most 8 to 10-year-olds and their social networking were "badging, communication, and peer comparison". For them it's about who they are, what they belong to, and comparing this with other children. Children can be socially aware even at a young age, and are often very supportive of brands seen to be looking after children's needs. And many of these brands can then transcend the original medium to become children's marketing magic. Maurice’s five-year-old son is obsessed with Moshi Monsters, for example, even though he has never been on the platform, and isn't even certain that it exists! And some of the magic of one successful brand can rub off on another. Club Penguin had one of its most successful months ever with the Marvel take-over, when the invasion of the comic-book characters pulled in many more children. Though even at this age some 'early adopters' of Club Penguin complained and did not welcome this shift in 'their space'.
As with all good sessions, the discussion moved across the panel and increasingly into dialogue with the audience, and points and questions came thick and fast. Younger children really seem to like mainly the play and the rewards: they enjoy winning badges etc. It was felt that perhaps this was because they were not quite ready for the socialisation aspect yet. While the categories that were described in the opening presentation are seen as a progression, it is clear that some of these aspects are also retained – there is a Control Freak in all of us somewhere.
'When do kids realise that other avatars in virtual worlds belong to other kids?'
A few older primary children will meet virtually on social sites for play dates, where both log into games like Club Penguin to play together online, but most children under 10 online aren't really on virtual playdates going to meet friends, but they do start to engage more with the other children that they find there. One of the best questions was 'When do kids realise the other avatars in virtual worlds belong to other kids?' This was seen by many attending as a pivotal moment in children's social development, though it may occur at different ages for different children.
There was much of interest to be gathered from the research undertaken by the social networking providers. Young people, like many of their parents, will generally have two "go-to" social networking platforms that they use above all others, plus some peripheral ones that come and go. Children will frequently forget logins, but rather than worrying about this they just open a new account. They don't worry as older people may about legacy data and content associated with old accounts. Many very young children are actually on Facebook using their parents' accounts, primarily to play the games. This emphasises that it is important to engage parents as enablers of social networking, not just as policemen, if children are to learn to socialise safely online.
The conversation did move from the view of a child purely as a consumer to look at the potential for positive emotional engagement. Children were found on the whole to be very supportive of each other in many digital spaces, and will frequently help or guide others. Virtual groups formed through playing games online benefit children, as they learn to guide and support each other. The notion of community in games certainly exists, but the challenge for the designer is to make the children playing it feel loved and looked after. While the media often highlight the dangers of online socialisation, this positive nurturing aspect is far less widely acknowledged and discussed.
The impact of 'age-slide' is widely experienced in sub-teen social networking, as younger and younger children join a particular service, but this is no different to books, TV programmes, comic books and other aspects of their world. Of course, it goes without saying that all these networks HATE being thought of as "Facebook with stabilisers" and want to be seen as independent experiences in their own right. There is, however, an undoubted cachet for under-13s in joining Facebook; it's the same risk-taking behaviour that led their parents to read Just 17 when they were only 13. Moving on to Facebook from children's networks is seen as a sign of growing up, a rite of passage. One interesting outcome of all this confusion is that while 32 per cent of UK 8 to 12-year-olds are actually already on Facebook, 50 per cent of 16-year-olds parents still forbid them to go on it! Many of them ignore this ban.
The E-safety debate is perceived by these providers as being very similar to the sex education debate of yesteryear – “They're going to do it; better to talk to them than turn a blind eye.” However, a cautionary note was raised over the funding of support and advice services that some expect to see provided by these networks. The "If you have a concern, go to..." approach can lead to advice silos that become increasingly expensive to maintain in the long term. There is also the ongoing threat that some of the well-meaning advice, or a failing in such a service, could lead to negative media coverage and even legal action. The consensus appeared to be that it was far better to let specialist services like Childline and CyberMentors offer aid to children using social media platforms.
This was a session of great relevance to educators of primary children. Primary teachers who want to explore furtherhow they can help their pupils engage sensibly and safely with this daunting world of sub-teen social networking, and to develop the skills that they will need as they move into the adult world, may be interested in exploring Safe, from DigitalMe. This offers free resources and practical activities to develop children’s skills, confidence and safety awareness online, and can lead to a Certificate in Safe Social Networking.