How do kids conceive the internet? - part 4

I’ve been wanting to write this post for over a year, but lacked energy and time. Before 2023 is coming to an end, I want to close this series and share some more insights with you and hopefully provide you with a smile here and there.

For this round of interviews, four more kids around the ages of 8 to 13 were interviewed, 3 of them have a US background—these 3 interviews were done by a friend who recorded these interviews for me, thank you!

As opposed to the previous interviews, these four kids have parents who have a more technical professional background. And this seems to make a difference: even though none of these kids actually knew much better how the internet really works than the other kids that I interviewed, specifically in terms of physical infrastructures, they were much more confident in using the internet, they were able to more correctly name things they see on the internet, and they had partly radical ideas about what they would like to learn or what they would want to change about the internet!

Looking at these results, I think it’s safe to say that social reproduction is at work and that we need to improve education for kids who do not profit from this type of social and cultural wealth at home.

But let’s dive into the details.

The boy and the aliens

(I’ll be mostly transribing the interview, which was short, and which I find difficult to sum up because… some of the questions are written in a way to encourage the kids to tell a story, and this particular kid had a thing going on with aliens.)

He’s a 13 year old boy living in the US. He has his own computer, which technically belongs to his school but can be used by him freely and he can also take it home.

He’s the first kid saying he’s reading the news on the internet; he does not actually use social media, besides sometimes watching TikTok.

When asked: Imagine that aliens land and come to you and say: “We’ve heard about this internet thing you all talk about, what is it?” What do you tell them? he replied:

Well, I mean they’re aliens, so I don’t know if I wanna tell them much.

(Parents laughing in the background.)

Let’s assume they’re friendly aliens.

Well, I would say you can look anything up and play different games. And there are alien games. But mostly the enemies are aliens which you might be a little offended by. And you can get work done, if you needed to spy on humans. There’s cameras, you can film yourself, yeah. And you can text people and call people who are far away…

And what would be in a drawing that would explain the internet?

Google, an alien using Twitch, Google search results, and the interface of an IM software on an iPhone drawn by a 13 year old boy

And here’s what he explains about his drawing:

First, I would draw what I see when you open a new tab, Google.

On the right side of the drawing we see something like Twitch.

I don’t wanna offend the aliens, but you can film yourself playing a game, so here is the alien and he’s playing a game.

And then you can ask questions like: How did aliens come to the Earth? And the answer will be here (below). And there’ll be different websites that you can click on.

And you can also look up “Who won the alien contest?” And that would be Usmushgagu, and that guy won the alien contest.

Do you think the information about alien intergalactic football is already on the internet?

Yeah! That’s how fast the internet is.

On the bottom of the drawing we see an iPhone and an instant messaging software.

There’s also a device called an iPhone and with it you can text your friends. So here’s the alien asking: “How was ur day?” and the friend might answer “IDK” [I don’t know].

Imagine that a wise and friendly dragon could teach you one thing about the internet that you’ve always wanted to know. What would you ask the dragon to teach you about?

Is there a way you don’t have to pay for any channels or subscriptions and you can get through any firewall?

Imagine you could make the internet better for everyone. What would you do first?

Well you wouldn’t have to pay for it [paywalls].

Can you describe what happens between your device and a website when you visit a website?

Well, it takes 0.025 seconds. […] It’s connecting.

Wow, that’s indeed fast! We were not able to obtain more details about what is that fast thing that’s happening exactly…

The software engineer’s kid

This kid identifies as neither boy nor girl, is 10 years old and lives in Germany. Their father works as a software engineer, or in the words of the child:

My dad knows everything.

The kid has a laptop and a mobile phone, both with parental control—they don’t think that the controlling is fair.

This kid uses the internet foremostly for listening to music and watching prank channels on Youtube but also to work with Purple Mash (a teaching platform for the computing curriculum used at their school), finding 3d printing models (that they ask their father to print with them because they did not manage to use the printer by themselves yet). Interestingly, and very differently from the non-tech-parent kids, this kid insists on using Firefox and Signal - the latter is not only used by their dad to tell them to come downstairs for dinner, but also to call their grandmother. This kid also shops online, with the help of the father who does the actual shopping for them using money that the kid earned by reading books.

If you would need to explain to an alien who has landed on Earth what the internet is, what would you tell them?

The internet is something where you search, for example, you can look for music. You can also watch videos from around the world, and you can program stuff.

Like most of the kids interviewed, this kid uses the internet mostly for media consumption, but with the difference that they also engage with technology by way of programming using Purple Mash.

drawing of the internet by a 10 year old showing a Youtube prank channel, an external device trackpad, and headphones

In their drawing we see a Youtube prank channel on a screen, an external trackpad on the right (likely it’s not a touch screen), and headphones. Notice how there is no keyboard, or maybe it’s folded away.

If you could ask a nice and friendly dragon anything you’d like to learn about the internet, what would it be?

How do I shutdown my dad’s computer… forever?

And what is it that he would do to improve the internet for everyone?

Contrary to the kid living in the US, they think that

It takes too much time to load stuff!

I wonder if this kid experiences the internet as being slow because they use the mobile network or because their connection somehow gets throttled as a way to control media consumption, or if the German internet infrastructure is just so much worse in certain regions…

If you could improve the internet for everyone, what would you do first?

I’d make a new Firefox app that loads the internet much faster.

The software engineer’s daughter

This girl is only 8 years old, she hates unicorns, and her dad is also a software engineer. She uses a smartphone, controlled by her parents. My impression of the interview is that at this age, kids slightly mix up the internet with the devices that they use to access the internet.

drawing of the internet by an 8 year old girl, Showing Google and the interface to call and text someone

In her drawing, we see again Google - it’s clearly everywhere - and also the interfaces for calling and texting someone.

To explain what the internet is, besides the fact that one can use it for calling and listening to music, she says:

[The internet] is something that you can [use to] see someone who is far away, so that you don’t need to take time to get to them.

Now, that’s a great explanation, the internet providing the possibility for communication over a distance :)

If she could ask a friendly dragon something she always wanted to know, she’d ask how to make her phone come alive:

that it can talk to you, that it can see you, that it can smile and has eyes. It’s like a new family member, you can talk to it.

Sounds a bit like Siri, Alexa, or Furby, doesn’t it?

If you could improve the internet for everyone, what would you do first?

She’d have the phone be able to decide over her free time, her phone time. That would make the world better, not for the kids, but certainly for the parents.

The antifascist kid

This German boy’s dad has a background in electrotechnical engineering. He’s 10 years old and he told me he’s using the internet a lot for searching things for example about his passion: the firefighters. For him, the internet is:

An invisible world. A “virtual” world. But there’s also the darknet.

He told me he always watches that German show on public TV for kids that explains stuff: Checker Tobi. (In 2014, Checker Tobi actually produced an episode about the internet, which I’d criticize for having only male characters, except for one female character: a secretary—Google, a nice and friendly woman guiding the way through the huge library that’s the internet…)

This kid was the only one interviewed who managed to actually explain something about the internet, or rather about the hypertextual structure of the web. When I asked him to draw the internet, he made a drawing of a pin board. He explained:

Many items are attached to the pin board, and on the top left corner there’s a computer, for example with Youtube and one can navigate like that between all the items, and start again from the beginning when done.

hypertext structure representing the internet drawn by a kid

When I asked if he knew what actually happens between the device and a website he visits, he put forth the hypothesis of the existence of some kind of

Waves, internet waves - all this stuff somehow needs to be transmitted.

What he’d like to learn:

How to get into the darknet? How do you become a Whitehat? I’ve heard these words on the internet, the internet makes me clever.

And what would he change on the internet if he could?

I want that right wing extreme stuff is not accessible anymore, or at least, that it rains turds (“Kackwürste”) whenever people watch such stuff. Or that people are always told: ‘This video is scum.’

I suspect that his father has been talking with him about these things, and maybe these are also subjects he heard about when listening to punk music (he told me he does), or browsing Youtube.

Future projects

To me this has been pretty insightful. I might share some more internet drawings by adults in the future, which I think are also really interesting, as they show very different things depending on the age of the person.

I’ve been using the information gathered to work on a children’s book… which I hope to be able to share with you next year.