How Young Is Too Young To Get An Online Life?


My First Computer, by DulcieMy First Computer, by Dulcie

My First Computer, by Dulcie

Recently we had a death in the family. My wife’s 2007 MacBook locked up completely: no on-screen movement, no keyboard access, no mouse control, no ‘three finger salute’ to kill the nastiness (which incidentally was a Flash game). She wasn’t really that worried; it was (mostly) backed up and she’d been hankering after a shiny new MacBook Air anyway. I, however, couldn’t let it lie, so I dug out the install DVD and got to work. I failed at the first step—the installer couldn’t even see the hard drive. It wouldn’t mount in Firewire Target Disk mode either. I could see it using the Terminal app, but not being a hardcore Unix geek I couldn’t do anything with it.

MBA's dinky USB restore driveMBA's dinky USB restore drive

MBA's dinky USB restore drive

So I admitted defeat and gave up. By this time, the new MacBook Air had arrived anyway, and while I was setting it up, it gave me an idea. Being devoid of an optical drive as it is, Apple include a dinky little USB stick which you can use to re-install the OS in the event of any problems. So I thought maybe I could create a clone of the Mac OS X install DVD on another USB stick and try that. To cut a long story short, somehow it worked. I was able to see the hard drive, reformat it, and install the OS. Of course, the wife is far too happy with the Air to want it back—her only complaint being that the SSD doesn’t give off any heat to keep her lap warm! So now we have a spare laptop in the house, and a five-year-old that likes to play ‘Moshi Monsters‘ whenever she gets the chance—seems only fair that we should pass it on to her.

I set it up with a ‘standard’ user account, with another ‘Daddy’ account for the admin and loaded it up with all the browsers and apps she might need—AlphaBaby is one of her favorites. I’ve enabled the Parent Controls to keep a check on what she gets up to. I’ve copied over all her audiobooks, her favorite songs, movies and TV shows—all of which should free up a bit of space on the hard-drive of my iMac. She loves watching home movies of herself as a baby, so they were sent over the wi-fi too.

Sending her first email, to NannySending her first email, to Nanny

Sending her first email, to Nanny

I had an unassigned email account with my mobileMe membership, so I transferred that to her name. When she was born I registered the .com of her name—it currently hosts a Flickr slideshow of photos from our various days out. When I first signed up to Twitter, I got her an account too—I use it as a way to share all the crazy things she says with relatives who live abroad, and it also feeds into her site. Now that she’s got her own computer I wondered how many other services should I sign her up for before the username gets taken. A quick search via showed that it was available in most places, so she now has accounts at WordPress, Blogger, Posterous, Tumblr, LastFM, plus the obligatory Google/Gmail and Yahoo.

I ran into a stumbling block on iTunes, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube as they have a minimum age to join. I can kinda see the point to this; I wouldn’t want her friending loads of strangers on Facebook and I’ve had some problems myself with users of Google’s Orkut in Brazil stealing my photos of her and pretending that she is their daughter. However, it would be useful if there was some kind of ‘minimal’ account available, so she could at least save her favorite YouTube clips and only find child-friendly content. Within minutes of her first play on YouTube she managed to navigate to the search box, type in ‘Mr Benn’ (her current favorite old school kids’ program) and start watching a show, so I could see how things could easily get out of hand there.

I know I could ‘cheat’ the sign up process, but that kinda defeats the object doesn’t it? I want to start teaching her all about ‘Netiquette’ (do people still use that word?), and how to choose a strong password. How to compose an email and how pointless it is to be a spelling/grammar pedant on Twitter. How to perform a power search on Google and the importance of an off-site back-up. I think it will be a while before she’s ready to be left alone with it, but the hand-holding process should be fun.

However, I do worry that maybe I’m being a bit too pushy. Maybe she won’t grow up to be a geek at all? I’ve no idea yet whether she’ll want to use any of these services or even if they’ll still be around in a few years’ time. More likely, there’ll be a dozen new and improved “web 3.0” services that will be much more useful to her. And by that time, she’ll probably be telling me how to use them.

How much of an online presence do your kids have? Do they use it much? Do you have any tips or tricks for safe-surfing? Please let us know in the comments.

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