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Real Life Internet Lessons for Kids

Over the years, we’ve all built up ways of interacting on the Internet. Those behaviors are based on our experience, both online and in the real world. Newcomers to the Internet often make mistakes because they have only non-Internet experiences. But imagine how you’d do if you were new to the Internet and also lacked experience in real life: you’d be at sea in a world with its own strange rules and without the basics most of us fall back on in unfamiliar situations.

That’s a bit what it’s like to be a kid on the Internet, and although there is plenty of advice for Internet newcomers, it’s seldom tailored to kids. That’s what I plan to do here, and this article is written explicitly to younger Internet users. I hope kids (or frankly, those who are just young on the Internet) can make use of this information when learning about the Internet. More important, perhaps, I want this advice to help jump-start discussions about the reality of the Internet between children and parents or teachers. Education is all-important, and learning about the Internet should be no exception.

Choosing an Email Username — Sometimes you can choose your own email username when you’re first getting on the Internet. That’s great, but think carefully about what you choose. Email usernames should be short, easy to type, and easy to remember. It’s a good idea to use your name or initials if possible, since those will be the easiest for others to remember (you almost never use your email address yourself, whereas other people use it constantly). You can choose a nickname or other word for your email username, but I’d caution against picking something you think is funny right now but might hate in a year, or a username which refers to something no one will remember in a year. You may have to live with your email username for a long time.

Spelling and Grammar — Most of the time you communicate with people on the Internet in writing. Thus, how you write affects how other people think of you. It’s a bit like clothes – wear the "wrong" clothes and some people will consider you a serious dork. Similarly, if you write badly in email, some people will assume that you’re not particularly bright. It’s all related to your audience, so if you’re writing to a friend, things like proper spelling and grammar may not be that important, but if you’re sending a message to a discussion list read by people who don’t know you, it’s a good idea to spend more time on your message so it’s clear and correct. The goal of communication is to convey information to another person, and if your spelling and grammar make your messages hard to understand, you’re failing at communicating, just as if you mumbled while speaking.

Oh, as a side note, if you’re sending email to adults and you want them to take you seriously or to help you, try to avoid current slang words (adults won’t understand those words, so there’s no point in using them), put blank lines between paragraphs (they make your messages easier to read), and don’t overdo the punctuation. There’s nothing that marks a message from a kid more than having sentences end in !!!!!! instead of just a single period.

Also, don’t write with the Caps Lock down unless you mean to have your message come across as though you’re shouting. There’s no arguing with this one – it’s just the way things are on the Internet, and if you use only capital letters, people think you’re shouting. Some people only use lowercase letters for much the same reason – they feel it makes their messages come across as though they’re speaking softly. I generally recommend using normal case, capitalizing the first words in sentence and proper nouns and the like because it’s easier to read.

Chain Mail — If you ever receive an email message that says you must send it to 10 friends or else you’ll have bad luck, immediately delete it and don’t send it to anyone! Messages that tell you to forward them on to other people are called "chain mail" and they are an incredible annoyance on the Internet. Some chain mail purports to be for a good cause, but chain mail never comes with an expiration date, even when the good cause was over years ago. The problem is that gullible people keep sending chain mail around. So, even if you think it’s funny, please don’t participate in chain mail. If everyone did, it could potentially overwhelm the Internet because of the massive number of messages that would be generated. It’s a serious enough problem that some colleges and universities consider sending chain mail is considered a violation of the campus computing rules, and you can get in big trouble for sending it.

For a real life example of how chain mail is dangerous, first take an eight by eight checkerboard and put two pennies on the first square in the lower left-hand corner. Then, moving left-to-right, double the number of pennies on each square, moving up a row when you get to the end of a row. So, there are two pennies on square 1, four pennies on square 2, eight pennies on square 3, 16 pennies on square 4, 32 pennies on square 5, 64 pennies on square 6, 128 pennies on square 7, and 256 pennies on square 8. That’s $2.56, right? Let’s just talk about it in terms of money from now on. On the next row, the amount of money is up to $5.12 on square 9, $10.24 on square 10, $20.48 on square 11, $40.96 on square 12, $81.92 on square 13, $163.84 on square 14, $327.68 on square 15, and $655.36 to finish the second row on square 16. If you were to continue this exercise for all 64 squares on our checkerboard, you’d have to put $18,446,700,000,000,000,000 on that final square. Not even Bill Gates has that kind of money.

So, you can see that if a piece of chain mail is forwarded to just two people who also forward it on for 64 generations, there would be so many copies of the message that no real email could ever hope to get through.

Spam Is Scam — An unfortunate fact of life on the Internet is unsolicited commercial email, more commonly known as "spam." Basically, if you have an email address, it’s likely that someone will send you mail that you didn’t ask for trying to sell you something. There isn’t much you can do about spam other than delete it, but keep in mind that anything that’s offered via spam mail is almost guaranteed to be a scam. Just like in the real world, if something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam.

Email Is Not Private — Many people assume that email is private and secure, but unfortunately, just as there’s no real way to prevent people from snooping in your room, there’s no guaranteed way to prevent others from reading your email. In other words, don’t use email for anything that could prove truly embarrassing or you will regret it, sooner or later.

Be careful of mailing lists. If you get a message from someone via a mailing list, and you reply to that message, there’s a good chance your reply will go back to the list and thus to everyone on the list. If you meant your reply to go only to the original sender of the message, it can prove extremely embarrassing. To avoid making this mistake, look at the To line in your email program when you’re writing a reply, particularly if the reply is of a personal nature. Make sure the To line contains the email address of the person to whom you want to send the reply, and not a mailing list.

Chat Room Identities — If you’re participating in a chat room, be it in the Internet’s IRC (Internet Relay Chat), AOL’s chat rooms, or somewhere else, assume that no one is who they say. It’s common practice for people to take on alternate identities when they’re in a chat room. There’s nothing wrong with role-playing, but some people do this for purely deceptive purposes. For instance, the majority of people using chat on the Internet or AOL are teenage boys or adult men, so the chances of it being true when someone claims they’re a cute 14-year-old girl are extremely low. Don’t believe anything you’re told in a chat room – since you can’t evaluate the source of the information, you can’t tell whether or not the information might or might not be accurate.

Don’t Be Gullible — Do you believe everything you’re told? How about everything you read? I certainly hope not! You should always be skeptical, and information on the Internet carries no more of a guarantee of accuracy than information from anywhere else. Just as you can find books that put forth outright lies, so too can you find Web sites that propagate incorrect information. The same will apply to email, Usenet news, and chat rooms – you must always try to figure out if the information you find or receive is accurate. The best way to do that is to look for more information on the topic, then see how that additional information compares and where it comes from.

For instance, if I tell you in a chat room that the moon is made of green cheese, you could check my statement by searching in a Web search engine like Alta Vista on something like "moon composition green cheese". If you found a Web site run by NASA talking about the composition of moon rocks and a reference regarding the moon being made of cheese in a collection of children’s stories, you can then decide if NASA is more of an authority on the moon (NASA astronauts having visited it) than a children’s story.

Meeting in Real Life — At some point, you may want to meet someone in person who you’ve talked to on the Internet. Although it’s fun to do this most of the time, be aware that it’s also potentially very dangerous, since you know nothing about this person other than what they’ve told you. And, as I noted above, they could be lying. So here’s my advice.

First, tell your parents and get permission to meet this person. Sneaking around behind their backs will only make things a lot worse when they find out, and parents always find out eventually. Second, arrange to meet in a public place – never in private. That may sound alarmist, but meeting in a public place eliminates the possibility of many bad things happening without damaging the enjoyment of the meeting. Third, don’t go alone – take someone with you. Fourth and finally, never travel a long distance to meet someone in an unfamiliar city.

If you think I’m being paranoid, imagine a movie where the main character has a habit of making the wrong decision and ending up in trouble. You know ahead of time that something bad is going to happen, because of the creepy soundtrack. The music swells, and you’re thinking "Don’t arrange to meet at the cemetery at midnight, you idiot! We know that chat room cutie is really a homicidal maniac with a fetish for pulling the wings off flies." Now imagine yourself as the main character and see if you think that someone watching you would be hearing the creepy music and thinking "Don’t be stupid!" If so, don’t do the stupid thing.

Cut Here — I hope the advice I’ve provided above proves useful for starting those discussions of how to make appropriate use of the Internet. I won’t pretend this is the last word on the subject, so if you have a common sense suggestion for kids or others who are new to the Net, send it to me and I’ll consider it for a future article.

[Adam C Engst is publisher of NetBITS and author of a number of best-selling Internet books, though he has yet to be made into an action figure.]

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