Websurfing without parental guidance

Kids spend a lot of time on the internet without oversight. They explore just as avidly as I poked around in the woods as a youngster. And sometimes they get stung, just as I did (damn yellow jackets). But do you know exactly what kinds of trouble they’re getting into? Porn and violence are well known trouble spots for unsupervised kids. But what about information collection and scams? I’d like to hear your opinions on this.

Okay, funny story. So, the other day I was sitting in the Wired Scot (the abomination that the College of Wooster tries to pass off as a 24/7 printing and internet facility) and I saw a couple of children that were left unattended at a terminal. They had about 5 browser windows open, all pop-ups, and were filling out surveys to “win a free [iPod/XBox/PS2/camera]”. In goes all the information the survey asks them for: name, address, email, phone number, number of cars, etc. Of course, the date of birth field catches them and repeatedly gives them an “unspecified error”, no doubt enforcing the age 13 cutoff demanded by law. I suspect the information is still collected, and I’m sure this leads to nothing but junk calls, email, and snailmail.

These kids were completely vulnerable to any and every banner, text, pop-up, pop-under, and slide-over ad. They clicked on every special offer, game, survey, and punch-the-monkey they encountered. Last I saw, they were going for 100 free frequent-flier miles. They had no sense of being gimmicked and lied to, and divulged absolutely any information that was requested of them — the perfect little informants.

Now, I don’t think that these data-collection ads will start actively targeting the “young-kids-left-alone-at-computer” demographic, because there are some pretty severe punishments for collecting information from kids. It does raise other concerns, though. Do parents have any idea just how trusting their kids are, especially on the internet, where social cueing disappears? Do they know what the kids do when left alone? I doubt it. (I’m amazed the kids didn’t hit a porn site on the way.)

Might adblocking software help to some degree? I use the AdBlock extension with Mozilla Firefox, and that takes care of pop-ups and flashy crap for the most part. I assume kids wouldn’t be attracted to the text ads, and those are usually pretty tame.

But that only delays the problem. Everyone has to learn at some point. At what age can kids be trusted alone on the internet with regards to gimmicks? Can adults be trusted alone on the internet? Doubtful. (This ties into the larger question of whether and how much people need to be protected from themselves.) Obviously, education at a young age is the best strategy. Perhaps you could teach it to kids as if it were a game. “Let’s go surfing! Can you spot the traps? Good! Oops, you missed one, those tricky advertisers.” Train ’em right from the beginning on how to spot ulterior motives. It’ll do them (and you) good.

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