How I Taught My 6-Year-Old To Use The Internet, And Not Let Google Take Her Allowance Money

“I don’t want to send money. I want to tell Papa I want the dinosaur chicken nuggets when I sleep over.”

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.

[Dinosaur Chicken Nuggets: Andrea Skjold via Shutterstock]

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12 Comments

  • Patricia Salomon

    I think it is a smart move as long as you or your husband are always nearby. I did that with my kids with AOL. Gave the same advise, took the time to be by their side, until it was time to let them on their own. A piece of advise: show your kid NOT TO OPEN e-mail with attachments from senders she does not know about. You and I know those are the gate to viruses and hacking, he/she does not. Good Luck!

  • kristen

    Great article. I especially like your notion that "No child will have it unless they have training and the maturity to handle any situation that arises from it". This begs me to question how is the internet being taught in schools and at what ages? Is there a standard on the age and content that is delivered or is the responsibility solely on the home?

  • rabbi

    I gave my son a computer,and a rocket ail (now msn) account before he was six. He is now an Apple exec at 1 Infinity Loop. Never got in trouble. He was brought up to think, and be suspicious of TV.

  • This is such an interesting narrative, however one of the biggest problems with allowing kids on Facebook and Google is the massive data collection infrastructure that Google and FB manage that much of the internet is built on.

    For google to allow kids on their site, they will either have to figure out a way to turn off all of these tracking items across the internet, or provide parents a clear and concise way to understand them all. I dont know if either is possible, but it is going to be very interesting either way! Also, i have to note that our company, Kpass is here to help any small and medium sized businesses more easily comply with COPPA with an easy to implement identity plat

  • Great article. Your example of explaining the internet as just like the outside world of good & bad is exactly how my wife and I have talked with our two boys (5 & 7). I recently sat down with our 7 yr old and we opened him his own Google account, after two things happened: 1) All of 'my' account bookmarks and YouTube channels were being overtaken, and 2) while visiting their grandparents this summer (who live on a farm) the boys spent hours catching crickets and bugs, then ran in the house to Google what habitat/food each bug liked most....they then built habitats and searched the kitchen for their bugs favorite food (who knew crickets like bread). This was a defining point for me, where I felt I could no longer let my parental 'fears' block access to the fundamental benefit of the internet - knowledge. Plus the way my wife and I see it (she's a middle school science teacher) influencing their online habits at 5 & 7 is going to be way easier than starting when their 13 & 15!

  • Tammy Sullivan

    In today's world, you need to teach them early as many preschoolers have tablets/Ipads. My kids are teens. Once they head to school, it becomes more difficult to control what they are exposed to. Teach them safety early.

  • Christina Hütten

    In my opinion blocking internet acceess and child-proofing it only makes it more dangerous. Children need someone to show them around and take the time explain all the dangers, challenges and chances to be able to understand how the internet works and make educated decisions. I don´t have kids yet, but when I do they will grow up with a guided access to the internet and coding skills instead of locked into a child-proof code-cage in a Disney or Nickelodeon App.

  • uekubo

    Hey, it's a matter of perspective. It's really mind-blowing to see things like your 6 y.o daughter, and you got me. But in some places like here in Brazil (yes, I live in São Paulo and work at interactive ad agencies for the past 13 years) we are a little more careful about it. We rather send kids to the playground in their free time, even if they are building some LEGO Mindstorm in their robotics class at school (Rich kids. Poor ones, of some cities of the country, don't know what the fuck a computer is). In a matter of children advertisement (which is prohibited) and internet crimes (which we're regulating now with new laws), we are always complaining about children under 13 with social network profiles and even email accounts. We are really against this stuff here. But there's nothing to blame if people from other countries do it. It's just a matter of our people reality and perspective. For you, I'd say it's smart. For us, it's insanity.

  • Brett Koger

    There is a rumor that Google is going to open accounts to kids under 13 that parents can control. But how is Google always trying to take your money?

  • Daniel R. Patterson

    All of my kids have a Gmail login, however, I have a domain registered through Google Apps allowing me absolute overlord control as an Apps administrator. They will never be able to lock me out, block me, or hide their activity from me until such time as they grow up and gain the appropriate level of maturity. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a helicopter parent and I have yet to ever do anything more than reset their password for them when they cannot remember it. But if there is ever a time where I think I need to use that authority it is readily available to me. Thankfully, they really do not care about Gmail or social networks.

  • I also created a gmail account for my 5-year-old twins to access photos from a NYC trip I took. It served as a learning tool as well as a link to my children directly while I was away.