Top 3 online safety tips for parents

A dear friend of mine asked me on Facebook if I could share with her my “top 3 safety tips” she needed to know, now that her oldest was 7 and her youngest was fast approaching internet age.  While I could talk for hours on this topic, I think I came up with the 3 things that parents of young digital natives should think about as they brace themselves for the years ahead.

1. I would start with thinking what you want your family rules about internet to be.
– Are they allowed to download things to the computer/device? If so what/when?
– Are they allowed to talk to other people on sites, games, etc? If so, who and when should you know about it?
– Who is in charge of passwords – you or them?
– Do they really get what privacy means and why we keep our personal info to ourselves?

2. Think about setting up a transparent dialogue about tech and digital activities.
Casually talk about different sites, games, devices, etc so that it’s known that those things are under your watch, just like other offline toys, games & relationships.

3. Think honestly about your kids naiveté and innocence.
Are they on the younger/more doe-eyed side of that spectrum? If so, make sure they know not to trust everything they see on the internet.
Are they more street smart? Make sure you are having the early conversations about bullying and how you expect them to treat others, even when they can’t see the other person’s face.

Just like with all parenting – there is no silver bullet, but the earlier you start taking the benevolent authority role with digital, the more they will see you as a resource rather than an adversary.

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How to do this “kids entertainment thing” right

I was on a panel at GDC this year called “Monetization of teens in a safe and legal way.”  I was joking before the panel that it sounded like “How to make money off of kids.”  Then I found out that it was QUITE the controversial session pre-conference.  If only I would have known, folks, I would have spiced it up a bit more. ;)

But in reality, that’s what all of us in kids entertainment are doing – making our living from figuring out ways to get kids to like our stuff and have their parents/caregivers pay for it.  

Sounds insidious, but we ARE in a capitalist society.  If you are going to pick something to make money off of, kids entertainment is a pretty fun choice for your own work happiness levels.  And it IS possible to do it in a non-sinister way, with high integrity and keeping an eye on your ethics.  It’s easy – just make games/cartoons/toys that don’t suck.  

LOL right? But really – make products that kids will love AND their parents will love.  Parents will be more prone to not mind paying for your product for their kids if it’s beautiful, fun and their kids like it.  Add a layer of learning in there and you are good as gold.  Make any of those factors superficial or not focus on it at all, you are going to start to see that revenue/profit fall.

Of course, you will have to make it legally and safely too.  But these should be pretty “Duh!” statements, right?

Legal - It is not difficult to comply with the regulations.  You will get fined or shut down if you are doing things illegally, so figure out what features trigger what laws (or hire someone who can help you), then decide whether to comply or remove the feature.  Easy as that.

Safe –  It’s also not hard to make your game or toy safe, either.  Figure it out.  If you can’t, seriously, don’t make it at all.  If you aren’t safe, or don’t have that as a priority, why are you making things for children in the first place?  There are tons of other demographics you can work with who are less concerned with safety being a priority.  Go there and make your money.  Please.  Leave the kids space to those of us who care and will continue to bend over backwards to keep the kids safe – not because we have to, but because we want to and we feel it’s the right thing to do.  

Bonus advice: 
Stop busting the balls of the person(s) on your team who are fighting for these things.  Thank them for being that person and having that drive.  Don’t make it a hostile environment for someone to bring up those sorts of concerns.  If they are bringing it up, chances are one of your audience will too at some point, so consider it a fortuitous heads up, not annoying nuisance.  

And give that person a raise too while you are at it (or at least buy them lunch sometime).  Most of those people fighting for the underdog aren’t making the big bucks, so a little goes a long way.  :)

GeekDad interview

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My colleague, Bill Shribman over at WGBH, interviewed me for GeekDad.com recently.
Here’s a snippet:

You threw my daughter out of Animal Jam when she was making plans to meet a friend for lunch, which I thought was a pretty impressive catch. She thought she had mistyped “duck.” What other kinds of behaviors or activities have you interrupted?

Thanks – I always love it when we can turn a discipline from the game into a positive parent interaction. As far as other behaviors/activities, where do I start? Obviously, for COPPA compliance, players trying to give out personal information is a very high priority – that’s addresses, emails, and phone numbers – but even Skype and other instant messaging usernames, FaceTime handles, and any other methods where players would be communicating outside of the game and potentially sharing that personal info.

While there is no law around it (which most parents are surprised to learn) we are also very diligent regarding inappropriate behavior and conversations, including cyber dating, drugs/alcohol, violence, vulgar language, cyberbullying and anything else we have deemed inappropriate to be associated with our brand and within the younger demographic we attract.

Read more here: At Least 17 Reasons Why Your Kid May Be Playing Animal Jam

Safer Internet day 2014

My dear friend and awe-inspiring colleague, Anne Collier from ConnectSafely.org, recently spearheaded the US Safer Internet Day event.  Along with a fun campaign called One Good Thing, where people sent in their multimedia good deeds or promises to help make the Internet a better place, she helped host an event in DC to celebrate the initiative.

And they taped it (yay!).  Here’s one of the videos, but check out the whole days coverage at their site.

Yep, that’s my big blonde head in the foreground of the audience… grumble…

CARU Annual Conf Keynote

I was recently asked to keynote the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) annual conference.  The audience is primarily general counsel from top brands who market to children and their families.  They convene multiple times a year to discuss online privacy law and advertising law as it pertains to their demographic.

I spoke at a previous event and was flattered to be asked back.  My keynote was a lighter piece, basically getting everyone up to date on some of the trends and habits of younger kids online and int he digital space.  This was the deck I used to chat through this topic.

My Commitment to Kids Online Safety & Privacy

I have spent years working for various children’s brands trying to make sure that every community I oversee cultivates a culture that encourages and promotes appropriate behavior online for child audiences, while offering resources for their parents.

I am so lucky to currently work for a brand that supports me in this personal and professional mission.  I am proud to show off our new parents page.  We have a robust vision for our parent outreach and this is just one of our first steps toward that vision.  Check out my second video highlighting some of the many ways we work to do this at Animal Jam.

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Izzy’s letter to her future Digital Native

About a decade ago, a previous CEO with tendencies toward tyranny forced me to have lunch with one of our interns.  I was slammed, but she said it was a favor to her, which I was, at the time, collecting as currency.

So I begrudgingly went to lunch with a muppet named Izzy Neis.  A muppet who through the course of our lunch, endeared herself to me.  I spent the next handful of years trying to help her become a force in the kids online scene.

She has long since become said force in our industry (and then some) and has also become one of my best friends.  Her blog post today for MMS really made me remember why on both counts.

Read and learn. Then pass on this info to your own current or future children.

AN OPEN LETTER TO MY FUTURE CHILD WHO DOESN’T EXIST

  1. Duck lips: Don’t do it. Whatever the future version of “Instagram” is when you’re digitally active – avoid the duck lips at all costs, UNLESS you’re dressed like a duck.  It’s not cute, sweet heart, I don’t care what your friends do or say.
  2. Nudey pics: There’s a time and a place, and it’s when you’re a baby in the bathtub – and I promise, I won’t post those online (I’ll only show them to your future fian–oh god, I’m getting ahead of myself – where has the time gone? You’re not even born yet! *sob*).  We’ve all had our parents take those nudey bathtub pics, yes.  But that’s where it should end.  Don’t take nudey pics.
  3. Potty language: Just because your friends think its fun to curse and say rude things on Twitter doesn’t mean that it’s going to be fun for you when I see it.  And if you think you can hide a Twitter or Facebook account from me? Think again – you don’t know who your momma is…. I will stalk you until the ends of your days. Not a threat – a promise.
  4. Your behavior online is a reflection of me.  Straight up. Your actions online affect me, our family, my livelihood, and future meals on the table.  Not enough people explain this to their children – but it is the truth.  Even when you’re 40 years old, and I’m aging beautifully in my Squatter’s apartment on Main Street in Disney World (long story), your actions will reflect who I am, your aunt & uncle, your grandparents, your best friends, and our family name.  Have pride in us.
  5. Empathy & Understanding.  It’s hard growing up these days (or in the future days, which I don’t understand yet), particularly online where you can see inner thoughts of developing minds splashed across profiles and smart phone applications.  If you mess up, I will understand – as long as you help me understand. And that goes for your friends – if they mess up, forgive them and find a way to move forward.  There’s no such thing as “black & white” – ask for meaning and context, be curious and loving.  It’s the Muppet way.
  6. “Because I said so.” -> if I say this, I am sorry.  I’m tired or frustrated, and I need a moment.  Take a breath, maybe gimme a wee hug, and say “Momma, I don’t understand.” You will win a legit response every time.
  7. Getting into spats with peers / trolls / friends / siblings: They’re going to happen.  Remind me to tell you about Sweet Brown.  She has this lovely message that I’ve really taken to my heart.  Because, at the end of the day, getting hurt by someone else?  Yeah: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”  We can discuss further over dinner.
  8. The exception: Bullies.  Bullies are bored, bothered, sad creatures who are missing a piece of themselves.  They strive to be cruel because they are not-whole.  If you’re being bullied, it’s because they see that you have that piece they are missing, and they’re jealous.  Bullies will always exist.  Bullies try to make you weak, and they’re difficult to vanquish, but when you do, you will gain 2x the strength, as long as you do it with respect and understanding.  I will help you.  I will help your friends.  Together we will be clever, strong, and we will remove the bully, or we will help the bully find his/her missing piece.
  9. Please remember how special you are.  It’s because you’re special that I ask you to keep parts of your “truth” private.  Privacy will always be an asset and always be a challenge.  The idea of a “stranger” online is still being defined.  The digital world allows for so many new interactions, and I never want to stifle your curiosity in other people, cultures, or ideals.  I just need you to understand that YOU have a responsibility of keeping yourself safe, and that entails quite a bit of cleverness on your part.  We must be like Clark Kent, and protect our identities in order to protect our families, friends, and our personal safety.  I will explain to you what “private information” is a thousand times, and you (via osmosis) will become an expert about safety and online behavior.  Sometimes, though, it will be easy to let your guard down and share with someone – talk to me if this happens.
  10. I’m sorry that I’m a horrible mom and won’t let you charge your smart phone in your room after lights-out.  I know I “suck” for not allowing a TV or a computer or a tablet or a laptop to exist as a feature in your bedroom.  It just ain’t gonna happen, dumpling.  Maybe when you’re 16 and can drive a (flying?) car, we’ll talk about it.  Until then: “Yes, I am a terrible mommola, and no, it’s not going to happen.”

Slow Clap, Izzy.  Can’t wait to meet my future niece/nephew.

Closing the US Gender Gap in STEM

SUPER inspired on my way to work listening to this story this morning. I was a casualty of the misogyny of university level Engineering/Computer Science – quit both degree paths after being exhausted dealing with my peers and teachers. My nerd powers were just not strong enough for the non-stop eye rolls, loud sighs and general exclusion I experienced. So good to hear some avoided or plowed through it and are still fighting the good fight.

It’s worth noting, though, that women approach things different not because of biological reasons, but because of societal, especially in the examples given in this story. Other cultures without our weird gender divisions do not have the same issues. So try to qualify statements of “women do it this way/men do it that way” with a quick “in our society” before/after (even if it’s just in your head).

How One College Is Closing The Computer Science Gender Gap

Adorable. AND Inspiring. Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe

COPPA/FTC- you make it so difficult to help you out

So I have a reputation as somewhat of a COPPA compliance warrior – so much so that my co-workers have been known to groan when I mention registration or database needs.  It’s an odd thing to have attributed to you, especially with no legal experience SLASH a general frustration with legal risk aversion in general.  But when you have been working on kids websites and communities for coming up on 15 years, you kinda get a hang for the ins and outs of the laws that surround it (or at least you SHOULD).

That’s the thing.  COPPA is required. It’s not a choice.  You have to comply.  If you don’t, you get in trouble – like super expensive trouble – in dollars and negative PR.  So you just do it.  I always find it odd when people brag about it or add it as a tagline to their branding.  It’s akin to saying – “My name’s Harry and just so you know, I definitely DON’T punch random strangers in the face.” Duh, Harry, but thanks for letting me know.

But COPPA compliance has become alot like speeding on the highway.  Many people obey the speed limit, but many more edge a bit over the line.  When they see a cop, they pull back and pretend that 55 is totes what they were driving the whole time. But then they inch back up to 65 or 70 the second they are in the clear.  I’ve heard some people actually see a speeding ticket every now and then as a valid cost of driving – a tax they are willing to budget for.

Much the same, companies have started inching over the compliance line on COPPA.  I actually have been in meetings with kids brand execs (NOT my current ones ;) ) that considered having a slush fund set aside in case their was a sanction levied against them.  But even Pollyanna-well-intentioned brands sometimes find themselves inching toward or even over the COPPA line.  You know why?  Because it’s SUPER hard to comply to in the internet/digital culture that we are in right now.

COPPA was put in place to protect kiddos from nefarious marketers who wanted to sell personal info. It was not for predators or decency or to teach personal accountability in identity protection.  But, with our culture of fear, those are the things that people think it’s in place for.

Is it good that a byproduct of this rather draconian law imposed on site operators so they don’t profit from the sale of kids info, ALSO helps prevent kids from distributing personal details about themselves in public forums?  Maybe – but I’m not sure that that remote and avoidable byproduct outweighs the other hurdles the law imposes.

You see, the whole thing is predicated on parents being super engaged in their children’s online lives.  Ask a parent about this and they will undoubtedly say:

“YES! Of course, I want to know what is going on with my child online AND to help them make good decisions accordingly!  I am an amazing parent!”

This is evidenced in tons of surveys.  But do those surveys follow up with the parent (and I mean REALLY follow up – not just ask the parent in another survey) with a

“Ok, parent, but do you REALLY? Are you ACTUALLY the super engaged parent you painted yourself to be?”

Chances are, if that followup actually happened, the answer  would be dodged with an excuse about lack of time or understanding, lament of the speed of tech advancements or a bold faced lie.

Truth is that, anecdotally (albeit with my use-cases in the thousands), parents don’t know about COPPA and their assumed required involvement.  So we can demand verified parental consent til the cows come home, but if the parents don’t understand that is something that is needed, all the FTC is protecting is a child’s ingenuity to lie about their age, while simultaneously making it harder for an an ethical site operators to pay their staff while providing good content for kids.

Unless these impositions on the site operators are coupled with a robust (and effective) campaign to explain to parents WHY and HOW they need to be involved, COPPA is simply discouraging smaller brands away from quality content from kids, encouraging children and parents to learn truth-dodging techniques in registrations and forcing the nefarious operators deeper into the shadows to avoid detection.  Only bigger brands can afford the legal counsel needed to check that they are in the right.  The ones who can’t afford will simply not offer the content, or worse, slap a “over 13″ stamp on it and skirt their responsibility.

The internet is based on communication channels – especially in the age of social media that is now the norm.  By starting from the false axiom of parental involvement and prohibiting use of the now standard means of communication until this involvement is verified, you are setting up either a web of lies OR limiting our next generations ability to learn how to use these channels correctly.  Both are horrible choices.

And don’t even get me started on how most of the mobile rules don’t even have a path to compliance…

Instead, we should flip the paradigm:

  • For the operators – we make the compliance voluntary and, therefore, honestly brag worthy.  Make it like shopping on a secure site – you get the security so that your customers feel safe.  If you don’t have that seal or badge or OK from the FTC, parents/kids would think twice before using their site.
  • For parents – we give them back their parenting responsibilities.  If they think their child shouldn’t be giving out info online, the parents should be punishing the children for breaking their house rules, not blaming the sites for making it too easy for their child to give out info.  And we should be helping parents understand this and how to do this – not assuming they are already there.
  • For kids – we teach them media awareness, basic stranger/danger skills and critical thinking.  If they aren’t ready for it – their parents shouldn’t be letting them use those sites – whether they are 8, 12, 15 or 17 years old.

I am not naive, I know this isn’t going to happen this year or even next.  But I am optimistic as to this happening at some point.  Until then, I will remain the compliance warrior, marching and marching on.  But I have 10 million+ kids and parents on my compliant site – so you better believe I’m gonna start the first steps toward a more rational model now.