Parenting and the Internet: the smarter, missing third way

My new Guardian column, What is missing from the kids' internet? discusses three different approaches to teaching kids information literacy: firewall-based abstinence education; trust/relationship-based education, and a third way, which is the proven champion of the offline world.

That third way is making media for kids and grownups to use/enjoy/experience together. It's what made the mission-driven Sesame Street so successful in its mission and the profit-driven Disneyland so profitable. We have some great media for grownups and kids to do beside one another (Scratch, Minecraft, Youtube), but nothing to do with each other.

There's two ways a conversation about the internet and parenting can go: the first way, which is also the stupid way, is to focus on how to stop kids from accessing the Bad Internet and doing Dumb Things there.

This is the David Cameron approach. David Cameron has proposed that all the porn sites in the world should check and record incoming UK visitors' ages – in practice, this means getting their credit-card numbers (and, inevitably, leaking them, tied to their porn preferences). Sites that don't comply will be dealt with: in practice, this means being blocked by the Great Firewall of Cameron, a foolish errand begun in the last parliament whereby an unaccountable, non-adversarial process is used to arbitrarily block websites at the border.

This is the stupid way. Firewalls don't work. Kids evade them. One of the UK's tech success stories is Jack Cator, an entrepreneur who launched the Hide My Ass proxy service when he was 16 to allow children to evade the firewalls deployed by their schools. Great Firewalls are great failures. In China, the birthplace of the Great Firewall, the major online control strategy isn't censorship, it's disinformation: the Chinese politburo employs a vast cadre of trolls who rubbish anyone who talks about things the government dislikes, discrediting them and muddying the waters. In China, which has the world's largest population of network engineers, where the majority of the world's routing equipment is made, where the law provides for penalties up to and including having your organs given to party members — in that China, they can't make firewalls work.

This is the stupid way – but not just because it doesn't work. Even if it did work, is there anyone who believes that your kids will never get unfiltered internet access? When (not if) they do, how will you have prepared them to use it responsibly? What life-skills will you have equipped them with? Abstinence-based education is not evidence-based education.

What is missing from the kids' internet? [The Guardian]