Esafety and the Wizard of Earthsea v2

1999 was a good year. I re-discovered a love of reading ignited by two classic pieces of literature set around children.  I would dispute that they are children’s book but I seriously missed out as a kid – by not knowing about these books.

Sharing books with a group of post  SATs year 6 children was a great experience.  They were enthralled. That year I shared two literary masterpieces:  The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper and The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.

We read the Wizard of Earthsea from cover to cover, and did some work comparing it with the entertaining but inferior Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  We meet the main character, Ged as a child and follow him through to becoming an apprentice wizard at a wizarding school. Once Ged is old enough he is given his ‘usename’  which is Sparrowhawk. From then on he is known by that and only his mother and mentor know is birth name.  Knowledge of a person’s birth name is considered to give other people power over that person.

Sparrowhawk has a rival at the wizarding school and ends up in a duel (as boys do – but remember fighting is bad)  it was interesting to listen to the kids draw parallels between that part of the book and the Malfoy – Potter ‘friendship’.  In the duel something terrible happens and there is a rift in the continuum which releases an evil spirit which savages Sparrowhawk and leaves him for dead.

Sparrowhawk recovers and is stalked by the evil spirit for his entire adult life and as a result lives a nomadic existence.  Until…..he comes to an understanding as to how to beat his nemesis. He must discover the birth name of the spirit.  Sparrowhawk  turns and chases the spirit to the ends of the earth, corners him, reaches out and names the spirit.  Ged.

“Hey Mr Y!” said Ryan, “That’s a metaphor that is.  It’s saying that the spirit’s name is his name – so Ged is his own worst enemy”  That stands out as one of the most incredible moments of my career.  Outsmarted by an 11 year old.

I happened upon a twitter discussion about usernames and security this weekend and it prompted me to recall Ged.

Perhaps we should exercise the same caution with children’s identity as the people of Earthsea did?  There are several crucial items in tracing someone’s identity.  Name is one of them.   Therefore why should we be willing to risk naming children and attaching other bits of information to that name?  A simple photo attached to a first name and a bit of context is sufficient to provide a potential abductor with a school address, a conversation piece, a name and face.  It took me 10 mins of browsing local schools to find an example of such careless practice by a school who have been trained in esafety.

Blogging is a magnificent enterprise, changing the prospects of children.  But one of the reasons it offers such authentic learning is because it is a high risk, high stakes environment.  So when a child posts a comment with a picture of their work and their first name in the user name it is a piece in the jigsaw.  If they post a picture of themselves in a later post, the jigsaw is building.

I suggest we take a leaf from LeGuin, let’s make it standard practice to support kids in choosing a meaningful ‘usename’ which encapsulates their personality and preserves their anonymity.  This will help kids learn an uncomfortable truth of the web, if someone knows your name, they can search for you, information connects you to place and face.  Someone who knows your name has ‘power’ over you – you can’t stop people knowing your name, but you can limit the power by reducing its proliferation on the web.

Children enter this life with no web presence.  A usename is one way of keeping it that way.  We are our own worst enemies, we give in to the endorphines released when we click ‘send’ or ‘post’ and pay no attention to any consequences. 

My point is this.  Blogging with your first name is of no consequence on its own, neither is a photo – the joined value of the information is more powerful.  Are we enabling children to recognise the possible connections in the information they are leaving behind in their digital footprint and should we be making it easy to create an alter ego for the web, making the links more difficult to triangulate?

14 thoughts on “Esafety and the Wizard of Earthsea v2

  1. Thanks, this is a useful e safety reminder. I agree that it is best practice for children to use an avatar and a nickname. However I think it depends on the other information that is available on the blog, if schools take care not to post pictures I can see the argument for using first names or an initial. This allows family members and other children in the school to easily identify who made the comment and help to build the readership of the blog. I think that every school should look at their e safety policy as a whole and see, where the balance lies.

    • Dear Neil,
      I think you are wrong. There is no good reason us use real names, many families use diminutives for their kids and everyone knows who they are. First name and activity in class is one bit of information, which a school can prudently control. It can’t control the reference to a school and other bits of information that complete the jigsaw bing posted on Facebook or elsewhere. Infact you hit the nail on the head. Family can easily identify who made the comment – thats great if all the family are safe. Aren’t the stats on perpetration against children heavily indicating that extended families pose the most danger to children? The information connections extend beyond schools – you can’t control it. I urge you to reconsider.

  2. It’s worth pointing out that in 7 years of blogging projects with nearly 100 schools involved I cannot cite a single instance of the “internet stranger” attempting to contact a child via a school blogsite. The bigger risk, to my mind, is the looked after child or family fleeing from an abusive situation who’s whereabouts need to be kept anonymous.

    The big issue with using nicknames is that nobody in the school has the least idea whose work they ar commenting on and that, to me, is a big problem because it mitigates against effective peer review.

    As Neil said, it’s all about balance.

  3. I know you as HGJohn, you know me as Ethinking – I know exactly who you are, usenames serve no purpose if they have no meaning, in a school, many children have nicknames and the children seem to remember them and know who they are.

    • Point taken, but we are part of an engaged community. We are more likely to know people by their twitter name than by their real name, which in itself presents problems when you get to meet the real person. My own experience of using nicknames instead of real names in an admittedly young class was not good, the children couldn’t remember their nicknames from one day to the next, let alone the teacher. We didn’t do a whole session on building meaning to the attached name, which I’m sure would have helped, but within a couple of weeks of starting we switched to real names.

      We have to be careful here in not getting risk out of proportion. As I said in my previous comment, I am not aware of a single instance of a child being approached via their online identity as revealed by a blog in any school I have blogged with and the overwhelming majority are using 1st names. I agree that linking names with pictures should be avoided but I think that unless there are real causes for concern surrounding the welfare of an individual that should be enough.

      It’s an interesting discussion that deserves wider attention.

  4. We have to be very careful! Schools in my opinion should have a ‘no name and picture’ policy stating that names of pupils will not be displayed with photographs. My Well Done Blog: has 100’s of pictures of Heathfield pupils on it but no names related to the pictures. I have to, on many occasions, edit parent comments saying that they are so proud of their ‘Stacey’ in that picture. It’s a wider problem than just school. When my pupils appeared in BBC, BBC NW, the Independent and the Sunday Times, they were identified along with their pictures, yet that seems acceptable!

    My opinion is that we must reduce the risk as far as we can within reason. Having any kind of blog online is raising the risk factor as it is searchable. Even with a nickname, that still gives someone some information that if they turned up to the schools gates ‘could’ help identify a pupil very quickly. Yes it is possible but is it probable?

    I see no benefit to using nicknames unless you are using pseudonyms that are not linked to a child at all, but even then, someone could still triangulate information like you say Pete.

    I’m heading to bed and will give this further thought!

    • Hi David, I guess I’m advocating the early teaching of digital disinformation. Its so easy to be careless – remember that chat we had about geolocation in audioboo?

    • Hi John,
      Your comments hae caused my to revise the stance of the blog to make it clearer that I am counselling the early education of children to consider their digital footprint and away from the grooming type context –

  5. Some good arguments for and against, it is great to read a properly informed debate rather than the media excited hype of stranger danger. There is no single answer, each school should deliberate a media policy which is applicable to ALL media, not just web. I recently advised on a school policy regarding posting of pictures to media and parents “opting in”. The policy stated that if the parent hadn’t opted after 2 weeks then the assumption of permission to post was taken. That is unacceptable!

  6. Good post Pete and another thinker for everyone. I personally agree to a point i.e. as much as we know that the chances of a predator using a school blog to find a child are very slim, why take even the minute risk when it is unnecessary? If something happened to even one child it would be far too many.
    However my main point is to do with e-safety later on life which is that if children get used to the avatar and username idea on school blogs it sets a fantastic example for all other opportunities they have to set up accounts online – Xbox online games/Play Station Network/Club penguin/Twitter etc etc so setting a good example early on is a good idea. It is something I didn’t do on my site straight away although always made sure that a child who had their name online did not have a photo and vice versa but I had always thought of it in terms of me protecting them in what I allowed of them online rather than setting an example which they could use across all their internet uses.
    So now I insist on pseudonyms even in podcasts. The children actually love having a pseudonym – nearly every child has always had a name they wish their parents had given them! Some are obscure but they love using them.
    I have included this for a few years now in my e-safety training – cos how can we say to them “do not give out personal information online” then tell them to put their first name online? My first name is personal as far as I am concerned.

  7. Interesting post – it is definitely the connections between photos, names etc that can prove troublesome rather than as they are individually. Early education is key to preventing problems.

  8. Pingback: Creating a set of logins for your class in Wordpress | Creative Blogs

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