Tips for Getting Children Involved in Telecommunications

Many schools and families these days are getting children involved in using modems to send and retrieve electronic mail. Just as a child can take great pride in getting his or her first library card, so too can children take great pride in getting their first password for a local bulletin board (BBS) or a national information service. In terms of becoming a participant in the Information Age, getting your first password is a life event as significant as learning to walk upright on two legs, getting a library card, or learning how to read out loud. Such landmark events should be marked with appropriate fanfare and celebration.

When getting children their own password, it's helpful to provide suggestions as to what might be an easily remembered password. The names of pets, family members, or friends comes to mind. Favorite colors or foods are another good choice.

To add an element of intrigue, you might suggest typing such a name backwards. So instead of "Kitty" the child would type "Yttik." This simple encryption technique can turn an otherwise ordinary telecommunications session into a top secret spy mission. Most youngsters will find the secrecy of passwords motivation enough to sustain their interest in telecommunications.

Make a big deal out of having the password be private. A private password gives a child a sense of self equal to a door sign saying, "Private Room: Do Not Disturb." Siblings need to be warned that they should not divulge each others passwords. Tempers can flare plenty fast when such high level compromises of security occur.

Although in all honesty, passwords on most BBS's and national information services can be easily changed when the password is no longer secure. Most BBS's and information services actually recommend changing your password every few months --- as an added security precaution. Showing children how to change their password is a worthwhile lesson in itself.

But after the password is acquired, children need further coaxing and supervision. Ideally the child should communicate via modem with people they already know very well. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends are all suitable candidates for first e-mail forays. By getting the child to communicate with someone they already know, the child does not have to make a strong effort to think of suitable things to say. The "electronic conversation" can be an extension of everyday ordinary conversations, following up on established topics of discussion.

As one might expect, children have a far more difficult time exchanging e-mail with someone they've never met. It takes a mature sense of self, along with sophisticated written communication skills, to engage a total stranger in a meaningful dialogue.

Keep in mind, too, that children are repeatedly instructed to treat all strangers with suspicion. Establishing a rapport with an unknown child or adult via modem, therefore, goes against many of these important safety concerns.

Nevertheless, many bulletin boards have attempted to set up electronic pen pals exchanges for children to use. In concept, the idea of a "modem pal" is very attractive. But in the practical world such electronic exchanges require careful supervision and encouragement to blossom.

With all their other activities, children don't always make it a practice to check their electronic mail regularly. So a month can go by before a response is written. The entire purpose of electronic mail, speedy communications, can be thereby thwarted.

The concept of "modem pals" retains great promise, but the process can succeed only with strong supervision by parents and teachers. Students who don't answer their e-mail on a regular basis need to be verbally reminded to respond. Children need to be explained that in the same way that's it's rude to delay the reply of a hard copy letter, so too is it rude to not promptly reply to your e-mail.

To goad the electronically lethargic, one technique is to devise suitable incentives for participation. These incentives need not be material incentives, though. In a family setting, increased family privileges can be a potent incentive. In a school setting, increased computer privileges are a natural reinforcement for active telecommunicators.

A second technique for facilitating modem pals is to have the kids exchange voice phone numbers. Voice communication between the children can help establish a secondary link, to further bolster the communication relationship. (i.e. "Sally hasn't replied to your e-mail in over 10 days. Why don't you give her a call and see what she's up to?")

One bulletin board in the Washington DC metropolitan area has had moderate success with encouraging children to link up with modem pals. Interested children get the sysop (system operator) to list their names, grades, and school in an easily accessible bulletin. First time callers to the board are amazed to see that there are over twenty five children waiting to link up with modem pals.

This modem pal project has not gone entirely smoothly, though. Some children only get to use a modem during school hours. Typing out a meaningful e-mail message during a busy school day almost requires a 30 word per minute touch typing ability.

Other children call into the BBS infrequently from a friend's house, or use a modem borrowed from the school. It makes sense to prohibit such infrequent callers from having their names listed on the modem pals list. Nothing is more discouraging than sending a warm greeting message to someone who logs onto the BBS once every three months.

Because telecommunications is likely to form a central role in future work and social communications, it pays to plan carefully how the technology is introduced to children. It's a daunting prospect to contemplate, to be sure, but their first impressions towards telecommunications will be carried with them well into the next century.

Still, a whole new facet of computers is opened up to children who are introduced to telecommunications. With appropriate supervision and coaxing their experience can be as exhilarating as a new reader walking home from the library with an armful of books. In those precious moments the world seems endlessly fascinating, socially welcoming, and intellectually beckoning.

Phil Shapiro

[The author takes a keen interest in the educational uses of online communications. He can be reached at:]

Return to miscellaneous writings menu.