In the last year or two many writers and researchers have been trying to correct the common perception that young people do not care about privacy. While the public may finally be getting the message that teenagers do value their privacy -- as they define it -- the idea that younger children have any personal information worth protecting is still a new one. Certainly, most people would probably be surprised to learn how early children are starting to surf the Net: the average age at which children began to use the Internet dropped from age 10 in 2002 to age four in 2009 (Findahl, Olle, Preschoolers and the Internet, Presented at the EU-kids online conference, London, June 11, 2009); and, thanks to the iPhone and iPad, that number has probably dropped even lower.
Given the early age at which children are now going online, there are many reasons to be concerned about their privacy and personal information. Many people -- parents in particular -- are unaware of how commercialized young children's online experiences are. Media Awareness Network's 2005 study Young Canadians in a Wired World found that 95 per cent of the top 20 most popular websites among Canadian youth aged 8-17 had significant commercial content. A survey of the top 15 most popular American kids' sites in September of 2011 shows that all but one have at least some commercial content, with the majority either being expressly commercial or linking to commercial sites.
The commercial nature of kids' sites is a significant privacy concern because many youth-oriented websites solicit personal information in a variety of ways: some require children to register before they can access premium content, while others ask kids to submit their personal information -- or their friends' -- in contests and surveys, usually with access to additional content as the reward. (As well as doing it themselves, many of these sites also host advertising material that also solicits personal information.) As well, many popular sites such as Club Penguin give kids the opportunity to socialize with each other, raising the question of what information can safely be given out and what should be withheld.
Young children now have much more opportunity to post photos and videos online, thanks to webcams having become a standard feature in laptop computers, and the availability of photo and video functions in many cell phones. All of these factors mean that for even very young children, privacy education must go beyond "don't talk to strangers"; kids today need to be taught how to safely and responsibly manage their and others' privacy in a wide range on contexts.
On October 20, MNet will release a new resource -- Privacy Pirates: An Interactive Unit on Online Privacy (Ages 7-9)—that introduces children to the concept of online privacy and teaches them to distinguish between information that is appropriate to give out and information better kept private. In Privacy Pirates, children are asked to put together a map leading to pirate treasure. To do this they must answer questions about privacy and personal information from a serious of colourful pirates, each of whom has one piece of the map. The focus is on positive feedback, rewarding children for correct choices instead of punishing them for wrong ones; research has shown that young children respond inaccurately to negative feedback (see Anna C. K. van Duijvenvoorde, et al. “Evaluating the Negative or Valuing the Positive? Neural Mechanisms Supporting Feedback-Based Learning across Development”. The Journal of Neuroscience, 17 September 2008.) For that reason we also kept the consequences of getting a question wrong as small as possible, allowing students to retry each question immediately.
The game's educational content is spread over two segments. In the first segment, set aboard the pirate ship, children meet the Mentor, who introduces them to the idea of privacy management, explains what personal information is and lays out some of the essential ideas of the game, such as the importance of consulting a trusted adult before making a major decision about privacy and the permanence of online materials.
In the second segment children arrive on “Internet Island” and meet nine different pirates, each of whom has a distinct identity and represents a different topic such as passwords, contests and surveys and privacy policies. Each pirate has a bank of randomly selected questions on that topic, which means that children can replay the game several times and still encounter new content. In a classroom setting, this also means that each student will have a different experience playing the game, leading to more valuable group discussions.
Throughout the game, players have access to the Mentor character who will give advice if needed by providing hints that suggest which strategy will lead to the right answer (without giving it away). This underlines the key skill of asking a trusted adult for help whenever a child is uncertain about the right choice as well as allowing the game's educational content to be delivered on-demand and in a practical context. As the game goes on, the player's progress is tracked through the assembling of the treasure map on screen; once the player has assembled all six pieces of the map they are rewarded with the “treasure” (a congratulatory screen and printable certificate).
MNet has been creating interactive Internet literacy tools since 1998, when it launched Privacy Playground: the First Adventure of the Three Little Pigs. With each project MNet has broadened its focus, adding resources that deal with topics such as online advertising to children, ethical Internet use, online hate and propaganda, and parenting in the Internet age. In addition to classroom and community-based resources, MNet also produces a professional development program – the Web Awareness WorkshopSeries – which educates teachers about issues related to children and teens' online activities.