Frankenstein and the Little Girl

“Frankenstein and the Little Girl” is Chapter 4 in “The Cyber Effect”  an important book by Mary Aiken, Ph.D., a cyberpsychologist.  Frankenstein refers to online search.  This chapter examines the online lives of children four to twelve years old. This is the age group that is most vulnerable on the Internet in terms of risk and harm.  This age group is naturally curious and wants to explore.  They are old enough to be competent with technology, and in some cases, extremely so.  But they aren’t old enough to be wary of the online risks and don’t yet understand the consequences of their behavior there.
The psychologist John Suler has said “Your wouldn’t take your children and leave them alone in the middle of New York City, and that’s effectively what you’re doing when you allow them in cyberspace alone.”

According to the journal “Pediatrics” 84% of U.S. children and teenagers have access to the internet on either a home computer, a tablet, or another mobile device.   More than half of US children who are eight to twelve have a cellphone.  A 2015 consumer report shows that most American children get their first cellphone when they are six years old.

There are some benefits and research has shown a positive relation between texting and literacy.  And there is an enormous amount of good material on the web.  However, some developmental downsides of persistent and pervasive use of technology are apparent.  Jo Heywood, a headmistress of a private primary school in Britain has made the observation, which is shared by other educators, that children are starting kindergarten at five and six years old with the communications skills of two- and three-year olds, presumably because their parents or caregivers have been “pacifying” them with iPads rather than talking to them.  Moreover, this is seen in children from all backgrounds, both disadvantaged and advantaged.

A national sample of 442 children in the United States between the ages of eight and twelve were asked how they spent their time online.  Children from eight to ten spent an average of forty-six minutes per day on the computer.  Children from eleven to twelve years spent an average of one you and forty-six minutes per day on the computer.

When asked what kinds of sites they visited, YouTube dominated significantly, followed by Facebook, and game and virtual-world play sites—Disney, Club Penguin, Webkinz, Nick, Pogo, Poptropica, PBS KIds, and Google.  Why is Facebook on this list?  You are supposed to be thirteen years old to activate an account.  One quarter of the children in the US study reported using Facebook even thought it is a social network meant for children and adults.  According to “Consumer Reports” twenty million minors use Facebook, 7.5 million  of these are under thirteen.  These underage users access the site by creating a fake profile, often with the awareness and approval of their parents.

Cyberbullying is an ugly topic that has received coverage in the popular press.  Cyberbullying has resulted in suicides.  Dr. Aiken notes the existence of bystander apathy in these events.  Few, if any, seem to come to the aide of those being bullied.  In a poll conducted in 24 countries, 12% of parents reported their child had experienced cyberbullying, often by a group.  A U.S. survey by “Consumer Reports” found that 1 million children over the previous year had been “harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook.

It appears that the younger you are, the number of friends increases.  In a 2014 study of American users on Facebook, for those sixty-five years old, the average number of friends is 102.  For those between forty-five and fifty-four years old, the average is 220.  For those twenty-five to thirty-five years old, the average is 360.  For those eighteen to twenty-four, the average is 649.  Dare we extrapolate to younger age groups?  Dunbar’s number has been discussed in previous healthy memory blog posts.  It is based on the size of the average human brain and is the number of social contacts or “casual friends” with whom and average individual can handle and maintain social relationships is around 150.

Be a Cyber Pal was conceived as an antidote to cyberbullying, and was about actively being a kind, considerate, supportive, and loyal friend.  And it is cause for hope that it became the most downloaded poster of the campaign that year.  She thinks that the positive message gave teachers and families something that’s easier to talk about.

Dr. Aiken is using an approach she calls the math of cyberbullying using digital forensics to identify both victims and perpetrators.  She is working with a tech company in Palo Alto to apply this algorithm to online communication.

She discusses pornography, which she terms The Elephant in the Cyber Room.

Let me conclude by presenting a four-point approach developed by a panel of experts to protect children online.

1.  Using technical mediation in the form of parental control software, content filters, PIN       passwords, or safe search, which restricts searching to age-appropriate sites.
2.  Talking regularly to your children about managing online risks.
3.  Setting rules or restrictions around online access and use.
4.  Supervising your children when they are online.

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