In the early months of 2011, the eyes of the world were on the Middle East, watching as the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and other autocratic regimes buckled under the pressure of democratic protest. Among those watching were a group of elementary students in northern Canada, who were able to watch a live Twitter feed of the protestors and other citizens of the region reporting what was happening. Despite their geographical isolation, these students were connected to events happening halfway around the world, thanks to the efforts of their teacher to bring digital media into the classroom.
Surely you’ve heard of Inspector Spacetime, the cult British TV series that’s run (with interruptions) since 1962. It has a tremendously active, engaged fanbase that’s created blogs, videos and music devoted to it. Oh, and one more thing – it never existed. It was made up as a thirty-second gag on the sitcom Community, as a parody-cum-homage of Doctor Who.
The classic 1985 science fiction novel Ender’s Game is one of several books of that period that foresaw both the advent of the Internet and its eventual importance in society. While certain aspects of its portrayal seem dated – in particular, it more resembles the text-based bulletin board systems of the time than today’s graphic Web – one element stands out as being particularly prescient: the use of the Internet to allow youth to participate fully in society. While today’s young people aren’t using the Internet to take over the world, as the characters in the novel do, they are increasingly using it to change the world, and more and more teachers are using the Internet to bring civic engagement into the classroom.
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.
One of the most famous images of online life is the New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon, published in 1993, was hugely influential in fixing an image in the public imagination of the Internet as a place where anonymity reigned. It did not take long for that humorous view of anonymity to take on a darker cast, as parents began to fear that Internet predators would use this invisibility to lure their children in the guise of twelve-year-old girls. It’s instructive, though, to realize just how long ago this cartoon was published, and how much the Internet has changed since then.