Last month, as I geared up to teach my daughter "Bug" to code, we built a better map of our neighborhood than Google had. On one level, it was a moment of empowerment. But on a deeper level it was a lesson about the futility of fighting Mountain View: The Fusion Tables my 6-year-old and I used to build our map are just one of a suite of Google Drive apps, and all the data we manually pulled together went back to the mothership.
Kids generally (and Bug specifically) get this. If you want a peek into how deeply they trust consumer-facing brands, drive them to McDonald’s and order them something new, and note their willingness to try anything Ronald boxes up in a Happy Meal. Now attempt to swap generic oat circles for the big yellow Cheerios box.
Kids today want to trust brands, and that’s why digital companies are trying to break into the Happy Meal demographic. Google is reportedly aiming to build child-friendly versions of its services, and the Instagram-for-kids app Kuddle raised millions in funding. This all suggests a move toward a Nickelodeon-ization of the Internet that allows you to plant your kid and walk away.
The trend—especially when it comes to social media—doesn't sit right with me. The sensitive Scandinavians behind Kuddle are coming from a good place, but in our house we treat access to a photo-sharing app like access to a gun: No child will have it unless they have training and the maturity to handle any situation that arises from it. And we don’t want to blur that line by introducing a cuddly new brand.
I have a wider goal to get Bug hooked on those free "Teach Your Kid to Code!" websites. So instead of waiting for someone to invent a walled garden, I decided to hold my daughter’s hand as we waded into the Internet as it is. Our first stop on the highway to the danger zone? Browsers.
The bargain of logins: I explained to Bug that the Internet was like the outside world: There’s fun stuff there and there’s awful things kids shouldn’t see, so you can’t go without an adult. When you’re out there, you don’t tell anyone your name. If they need a name to refer to you by, use a code name, so no one can trace it back to you.
This idea of not trusting the web wasn’t a difficult concept for her to understand, because she has spent time playing kids games on an iPad. Kids with tablets learn that "free" apps generally aren’t free—they make you pay by watching ads or by asking you to get your friends to sign up, or by shaking you down for money to continue playing. (Here Google seems to be ahead of Apple in solving the problem.)
My wife and I have had to explain to Bug time and again that the cute baby monkey doesn’t actually want to complete its adventure and get back to its mother. The cute baby monkey wants to keep pulling micropayments out of our iTunes account one dollar at a time. The baby monkey will probably never return home, because the game designers are bad people.
With the story of the purgatorial monkey in mind, we started logging in.
First login: Chrome. Teach a child that she can move her Disney Junior bookmarks to any computer in the world and she will instantly understand the mechanics. We picked out an maximally bizarre fake name, and we were in.
Second login: Gmail. Her mom was out of town, and Bug was eager to impress her by sending an email. So she logged in, and I took a few minute to show her how the Gmail layout works. It’s slow going, but her sponge-brain doesn’t need to be told anything twice.
She sent an email to her mom (with lots of help from dad) and was disappointed when there wasn’t a quick response. Now bored, she decided to try sending a new note to her grandfather, Papa. When she hit the COMPOSE button to start a new note, this appeared:
"What is that?" Bug asked.
"It’s Google trying to get you to use Google to send money to people."
"I don’t want to send money. I want to tell Papa I want the dinosaur chicken nuggets when I sleep over."
"Okay, but maybe sending him $5 will help him remember."
"This is annoying."
It was! But we demonstrated two important lessons: 1) Google is always trying to take your money, and 2) How to close pop-up ads.
She sent her note to Papa demanding specific nuggets, and then she went to Code.org, which we’ve been experimenting with this week. She had her guard up, as she should.
Do you think giving a 6-year-old a Gmail login is a smart move or insanity? Let me know in the comments or on email.