This post sets out clear ways children can limit their public exposure on Twitter, but still enjoy all the fun of it, including following their mates.
(Updates are noted at the bottom of this page.)
Preamble - why I'm writing about this
Here she goes, writing about Twitter again. Sigh. But this time, it's important!
There seems to be a state of denial on the internet that Twitter has any safety implications for kids, which I find slightly bizarre. I've had very young children try to follow me in the last few days. Given that even when you protect your updates, everyone can still see your follow/following list, and there is no age restriction on searching, the system appears to be as holey as a chunk of swiss cheese.
There are pieces up online for parents, but they are woefully inadequate, leading me to the conclusion that parents may feel a false sense of security about their kids tweeting, given the lack of immediate capacity for images, extended conversation and so on.
I will update this post as it's discussed (I hope) and will also get in touch with Twitter for their official response. I'm certainly not slagging the guys, given that I haven't talked to them about this. Anyone who knows me knows I heart Twitter and have done for many moons. Here's why I think it's amazing, summed up in one tweet from "@Astro-mike" whilst circling the earth in a Space Shuttle. Now imagine being a kid and getting updates from an actual astronaut, in space, to your desktop or even better, to your phone, the moment he sent them. Twitter is a brilliant tool for promoting engagement amongst kids on a global scale, in a multiplicity of topics - particularly since in many areas, SMS is available, but 'net access is not. It would be terrible not to optimise the Twitter experience for children.
My point is that children are already using Twitter. Twitter's Terms of Service state clearly at the top "You must be 13 years or older to use this site" as the first point. Which is great, but there is no real policing of this.
When you register, there is no way to exempt yourself from people-search, and there are no Safety settings to remove yourself from Search, or to hide your lists of Following/Followers* (check updates below). For adults, I can imagine that these settings would seem antithetical to the point of the whole thing, but for some adult groups (those whose safety would be compromised if they were findable by a violent ex-partner, for example) those features might be extremely useful.
So I hope I've explained adequately what I feel to be failings in the system. I'm not going to suggest that Twitter are vastly at fault. It's probably just not come up. I've searched "Safety", "Parents" and "Children" on the Twitter Help pages and have come up with blanks. I'll be asking them, and I'll let you know.
Meanwhile! I'll come to the advice part.
Advice for children / parents whose kids use Twitter
- For parents: Your children will check Twitter out. They might get bored, or they might use it for a while. Don't ignore it, and remember the above point re: Astro-Mike. Twitter has the potential to be brilliant, so take the time to investigate it with your children, if they show any interest.
- Kids: Give yourself a Twitter nickname which is gender free. It might have something to do with your gaming, your favourite books, a cartoon character, but if it's not a boy or a girl's name that will help keep unwanted strangers from your door. Even better if it's not too kiddie either. My online nickname, for example, is "Zoonie". It doesn't mean much, and you really can't tell whether the person writing might be a boy or girl.
- Kids:...while I'm at it, take a look at your upload image (and your background image too). Do you think it gives away who you are? Try not to use photos. Make something up! My background is a picture of some reflection in water (I know, a bit dull) and my image is a hand drawn 'picture' (if you can call it that) of a cat. By the way, don't worry about using images from computer games. you may not have noticed but...uhuh. There are a lot of adults who like computer games too.
- Kids: Make your updates private, so only you and your friends can see them
- Kids: Don't ever accept a "Follow" request from someone you don't know. It's not worth the risk. It could be someone just trying to sell you something boring, who has spammed everybody, or it could be someone chancing their arm and trying to find out if you are a kid or not (and not because they are, either). How do you only accept Follows from people you know? Ask them in person.
- Kids: ...and don't search for interesting looking new people who might be adults without checking it out with your parents first, so they know who you are following. It might be easy for someone to hide behind an interesting name, when it turns out that actually, they're not very interesting, or actually, they're horrible.
- Kids: If you think your parents don't know about Twitter, and you've started twiddling with it, then show them it, and how great it can be. you could also show them this post, and assure them you're being as grown up as possible about using it. It's amazing how reassuring it is knowing that your kids are being sensible, even when they're playing with knives!
Apologies if I sound like a pillock in the advice tips. I'm not a professional writer for Tweenagers ;)
Talking to Twitter about changes:
One week later: well, I've tried to get through to Twitter via the way a member of the public would, and have been sent back the form email with no personal response twice now. I think repeating the same action over and over without seeking other routes would be a pointless gesture of negativity on my part. I'll get back to you with how it's going. Meanwhile, if anyone from Twitter reads this before I get anywhere, wave and let's talk!
When I sent this article to industry mail list Emint for comment, Amy Pritchard pointed out to me that something I suspected was true: @astro-mike (sob) didn't tweet from space! No! My illusions are shattered. However, the point still stands, I think. Had I written this a year ago, I would have substituted him for another glorious NASA invention: @MarsPhoenix, of course.
Ribs Susiaho, the keeper of an excellent name, suggested the inclusion of the safety tip regarding use of images. To use a BoingBoingism: Thanks Ribs!
*Twitter updated! It is now the case that if you are operating a restricted account, people cannot see your followers, or who you are following. That's brilliant, and means that younger users can be sure that they can tweet to their friends, in private. Note that your account will hoever still show up in Search, so all that stuff about keeping your nickname 'gender neutral' and keeping the description pretty vague still holds true.