I took a short break from my PhD thesis to spend part of the summer researching autonomy, privacy and social media for kids with Jason Nolan at Ryerson’s EDGE Lab. I had the honour of presenting our findings at the recent DIY Citizenship conference in Toronto. If you weren’t able to check it out, my talk on MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) for girls and the privacy issues inherent in them was recorded (along with awesome talks on kids, hacking and autonomy by Alison Gaston, Yukari Seko, and Alexandra Bal.)
My main argument is that MMOs for kids (especially those exclusively for girls, such as Barbie Girls which Sara Grimes has done some fascinating work on) present themselves as safe spaces where kids can play online and parents don’t have to worry about sexual predators or online bullying. However, MMOs for kids reinforce fear and the rhetoric of stranger danger (despite the fact that studies have shown that children are more likely to be harmed by people known to them) while obfuscating other very the real dangers that are actually created by the design of the MMOs themselves, especially in terms of reinscribing disempowering gender roles for girls and exposing them to endless marketing messages. For example, the objectives and activities in Barbie Girls, Club Penguin and Webkinz are all based around passive consumption of digital goods rather than creativity. And, more alarmingly, MMOs propose to keep kids safe by only allowing conversations through predetermined pull down menus of phrases, many of which limit a child’s expression to disempowering gender roles or advertising for the MMO itself (eg “Someone made fun of my outfit!” “I looked like a dork in gym class!”, “My crush found out I like him!” (Barbie Girls) or “I like to answer surveys to earn KinzCash.” (Webkinz)) The thought is that by preventing kids from sharing information about themselves online, they will be protected from stranger danger. The irony of all this is while youth are blamed for oversharing, 84% of Canadian children under the age of 2 have a digital footprint created by their parents.
A more broad and less obvious concern is the connection between autonomy, privacy and critical thinking (I thank Jason Nolan for this insanely brilliant insight). There is a huge body of research in early childhood education and developmental psychology that links privacy as a requirement for the development of autonomy and vice versa, as well as a host of other skills, such as making judgements, trust and analytical thinking (see Marx & Steeves, 2010; McKinney, 1998; Coleman & Hagell, 2007; and Davis, 2001). In the context of this research, the design of MMOs for kids tends to:
- Discourage creativity, autonomy, critical thinking
- Hider development of skills needed for privacy and trust
- Normalize covert surveillance
- Encourage self worth derived from consumption, economic buying power and appearance