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Social Translucence and Internet Parenting

Part of what makes putting the computer in the family room work well is that it has a degree of “social translucence.”  Tom Erickson and Wendy Kellogg write:

We begin by asking what properties of the physical world support graceful human-human communication in face-to-face situations, and argue that it is possible to design digital systems that support coherent behavior by making participants and their activities visible to one another. We call such systems “socially translucent systems” and suggest that they have three characteristics—visibility, awareness, and accountability—which enable people to draw upon their experience and expertise to structure their interactions with one another.

When I walk through the dining room where our computer is located, I can’t see what my son is typing unless I come uncomfortably close. And that would feel rude, so I generally don’t. But if he’s looking at images or videos, I can see them at a distance. The physical properties of the space afford greater privacy for text than for other media.  No one planned it that way, but it’s a pretty strategic setup when you think about it. I can quickly get a sense of the general sort of thing he’s doing but the details typically remain more private.

It works the other way around too–I use the same computer, and my kids are aware of what I’m doing on it too. If the one who is old enough to read is watching, I intuitively know when he’s close enough to actually read the words on my screen and when he’s not.  It’s quite striking how detailed these affordances are–what they allow and what they don’t allow is complicated.  The use of the physical properties of the space to maintain a mixture of privacy and mutual awareness is social translucence.

I got some interesting responses to my last post. People definitely are comfortable at different positions on the spectrum from trusting kids to monitoring them.  Kids and teens are continually facing new challenges, and at any given time there are some they are ready for and some they are not.  Parents need to let them experiment and make mistakes–but not mistakes with tragic or irreversible consequences.  It’s a delicate balance. But wherever you are on the spectrum from “protect them” to “let them learn from their mistakes,” I think there’s one thing we all can agree on: we need more socially translucent solutions to Internet parenting.

For me, I want to know if my kid is online at 4 am. I want to know if he’s being bullied, or bullying others.  I want to know that he’s using good judgement in the kind of content he accesses.  I want to know if there’s something else I should be worried about–is there something parents should watch out for that I don’t even know about?  But beyond all that, I don’t need to see the details of exactly what he’s saying to his friends or doing online.  The interesting question is: could a tool be designed to help?  What would a socially translucent tool for parenting your kids’ Internet use look like?  It’s a tremendously hard design problem–particularly if you hope to create mutual awareness among people rather than an algorithm that tries to operationalize values (a task which Internet filters attempt, and largely fail). But if such a design was successful, it would be a win for both kids’ privacy and effective parenting.

(For more on this topic, see Social and Technical Challenges in Parenting Teens’ Social Media Use by Sarita Yardi.)

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