It’s not easy teaching kids about stranger danger these days. When you sit your little ones down to tell them not to talk to strangers, you need to somehow explain that this includes anyone they might encounter online. On the one hand, you don’t want to scare them away from the wonders of technology; on the other, you don’t want them accidentally handing out their location. It’s a tricky line to walk.
The good news is that Ruff Ruffman is here to help. A beloved, slightly manic cartoon dog, Ruffman is being deployed to teach elementary school kids how to be smarter about using technology. Boston’s public television station, WGBH, introduced Ruff to the cartoon universe in 2006 as the host of a game show called Fetch! The show was cancelled in 2009 to much boohooing, but Ruff is now ready for his second act with a new cartoon, Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius, which will stream on YouTube and the PBS Kids website. It will launch with interactive games, quizzes, and resources that will help kids better grasp the issues in the show.
This time around, Ruff has the hefty responsibility of shepherding kids through the complex, potentially dangerous world of technology. It’s a tall order, but Ruff doesn’t seem too weighed down by the task. He’s barreling through episodes in his weird, hilarious way, teaching kids how to switch off their location when taking pictures on their smartphones or how to balance online and offline activities. The pilot received 1.8 million views in the first three weeks it went live.
To figure out exactly what tech issues children between the ages of six and eleven are wrestling with, WGBH worked with media and child development experts. It also surveyed more than 4,000 kids and 250 parents. In the show, Ruff addresses the kids’ biggest questions playfully and in terms they will understand. The Ruff Ruffman website also includes a forum for parents to discuss their experiences with technology and swap tips about how to navigate this brave new world.
Part of the difficulty with creating a show like this is that kids’ relationship with technology is constantly changing as new apps hit the market with new functions and new complications. “The show is designed to be agile with low production costs and a quick turnaround,” says Bill Shribman, senior executive producer of Children’s Media at WGBH, explaining how episodes will constantly evolve to keep pace with kids’ changing media usage.
Shribman also points out that his team is just as invested in teaching kids about the benefits of technology as its perils. For instance, Ruff actively encourages kids to use their cameras on their devices to be creative and document their experiences. “The show sits in the entertainment world but recognizes that kids may not realize that when they post a picture online, it might be geotagged,” he says.
“We’re definitely not trying to scare them off the Internet any more than you would scare a kid off a bicycle,” Shribman says. “You just wouldn’t teach kids how to use their bikes on a major highway. Ultimately, you want them to be independent riders going off and exploring the world safely on their own.”
With the aim of ending each episode on a positive note, Ruff spontaneously breaking into dance under a 1970s disco ball.
And with that–Internet safety gets just a little more fun.