Give them the keys, why don’t you?

“A very little key opens a very heavy door.”  – Charles Dickens

Key {noun} : a piece of metal cut into a specific shape and used for opening or closing a lock.

Keys open things up. Keys access ideas, places and spaces. Keys keep belongings safe. Keys start an engine. Keys are essential and at the heart of every idea and every body of knowledge. Keys are passwords and codes. Keys represent permission to enter. Keys create safety. Keys are small but strong and controlling, and we are generally selective about giving these out. Except it seems, to our children. We give them the most powerful of keys, the golden keys to a global world, without much thought. These keys open up ideas, connections and access to paradigms we ourselves have not yet traversed or understood as adults.

For ‘golden keys’ read:

  • smart devices
  • internet access
  • social media accounts
  • opportunity to be out of sight and secretive

We gaily abandon all caution we have about giving out any other keys in the rites of passage to adulthood. We do this irresponsibly because it is the path of least resistance.

On exchange of a small fortune, home owners and hotels hand over property keys to adult tenants and purchasers once the likes of banks, conveyancers and credit bureaus have ratified that person’s bona fides.

At 21 years of age, tradition says parents might give their child keys to the house so they can come and go at will. Guardians only do this when they have seen responsibility and trust is established.

At eighteen years of age, law says that adolescents can have keys to a car, provided they are licensed, responsible and skilled to drive. Cars have raw power, roads are full of dangers and the risks are high stakes. We make them earn this right.

At thirteen years of age, many apps offer the chance fraternize with ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ in communities well outside of a person’s lived social world. The only key needed, to be reached by just about any one of the billions of people online, is a date of birth and a series of letters and numbers you make up for yourself. None of this information is authenticated and any data will do. Parents even help generate hogwash so desperate they are to have their offspring accepted.

At eight to ten years of age, children are given powerful keys by their parents to do with what they like, mostly handing over their neurological, social and emotional development to software engineers looking to rewire the human cognition for addictive and impulsive behaviour. It’s just gaming and a closed group chat, right?

Children under the age of eight years old have the real head start on most adults in the world. They hold golden keys – keys to any door. The World Economic Forum in its Global Risks Report 2013 calls the current global environment a “digital wildfire”. Researchers cited by authors Holloway, Livingston and Green in the book Zero to Eight. Young Children and Their Internet Use back in 2013, noted a trend worldwide that young children have smart devices and access the internet regularly: in South Korea 93% of 3-9 year olds average 8-9 hours a week online (Jie, 2012); 25% of American 3 year olds, 50% of 5 year olds and 70% of 8 year olds go online every day (Gutnick, Bernstein and Levine, 2011). In Australia, 79% of children aged between 5-8 years of age go online at home (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). 50% of Swedish children age 3-4 years old use tablet computers and 25% use smartphones (Findahl, 2013). 23% of 0-6 year old children in Norway access touch screens in their homes (Gumundsdóttir & Hardersen, 2012). In Germany, 17% of families with children aged 3-7 and 18% of families with children 6-11 have access to tablets with touchscreen features (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest, 2012a). In 2011- 2012, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the figures are recorded as similar (Ofcom, 2012). Children with internet access and devices are likely to access games and social media networks (Suoninen, 2010) and become interested in playing games online by the age of 4 (Childwise, 2012).

Forget keys to the car; keys to the house; keys to success; keys to literacy; keys to the future; keys to lock up belongings for safety; keys to understanding; keys to creativity. We offer our children as young as three years of age: keys to isolation; keys to a distorted body image; keys to addiction; keys to inattention; keys to strangers.

Yes, keys to strangers.

A parent may think that giving their child permission, passwords and access is one directional. It is not. In equipping for internet access, parents are unlocking access to their child on every level – physical, emotional, social and spiritual. They are giving a virtual key to anyone in the world who might want to reach the child. They are opening up their child to the internet of things. They fail to keep a boundary of safety around their child. The key given is in reverse. At every logon, there are no keys separating your child from others how do not have responsibility for that child, who make no decisions in the interest of your child and who will exploit your child from every angle, interpersonally (think of the emotional uncertainty in ‘online friendships’ where no one is ever ‘in the room together’ or face to face accountable to the other), as a market driver (think nag purchasing) and to promote a cause (think ISIS recruitment across the world). Your child’s data and movements become part of the cesspool that is mined information to perfect artificial intelligence that hardly drives a humanitarian cause forward. A key defends your belongings and property. A key in the internet of things protects your child from other people. But you give the access away, because “everyone is doing it”?

The world has plummeted into its fourth industrial revolution reality. Smart devices, media rich data and global connections are here to stay. There is much promise in the advances in medicine, communication and education. AI is here to stay, jobs we know are becoming redundant and the skills we need in even three years’ time are still not well understood. The internet of things has changed our lives completely. We do have to participate in it, with its pitfalls and promise, but we need to do so mindfully, proactively and with clarity around the new boundaries we must set for ourselves and our most precious treasures, our children.

It is time for a master key in our village that raises children together. A school leader can never assume to set rules for your home. In this matter, you know the dangers and you know the risks. It is reasonable to believe that there is enough information out there to assume you are informed. You are going to have to accept the emergence of the internet and technology – there is no Zen retreat in paradise awaiting you. However, you do have a choice to raise your child with either exposure to the threats and perils, or as safely as possible. Schools can elect to act on their loco parentis status, and choose to take control of the keys in the hours they are responsible for your child. There could be no phones at school, no tablets with social media and online gaming loaded and no unmonitored access or private spaces online. To do school work, schools can continue with practices and procedures they set up: all log on to the school’s server LAN and function within a controlled educational environment. All passwords can be recorded and all activity should be visible. Schools must use ICT to learn, software to assist learning, and robotics to solve problems and play with ideas. If anyone breaches the code, thus placing other children in a precarious position, schools must deal with it using consequences no different to those that may be incurred if a child stole the Principal’s car keys and took the vehicle out on the road packed with his or her classmates. Going forward, access to the internet via 3G and 4G data services, messaging in school hours, inappropriate web surfing and any other misconduct must be dealt with very firmly. Your child might resist the school’s rules. Please support the school anyway. Don’t give him or her keys to escape the safety of this boundary. Compliance is a short term discomfort in exchange for long term well being. Personally, school leadership will go to the wall to keep your child safe. Will you?