The Internet affords children endless opportunities to get into serious trouble, downloading what they shouldn't download, looking at what they shouldn't be looking at, and getting ideas about what they shouldn't be getting ideas about.
But the good news is that if your kids are like mine, they may be doing some or all of those things... but there's another use for the Internet that's attracting their time and attention.
It's called teaching.
That's right -- your kids are most likely teaching other kids how to do things that interest them. The online world, especially YouTube, has turned into an academy without walls, entrance fees or final exams. The instructors, just like the students, are barely into double digits.
Take my 10-year-olds (please!). My twin sons, Isaac and Walter, are variously interested in unicycling, origami, juggling, magic, Minecraft, jailbreaking their iPods and similar subjects. Much of what they've learned about these topics has come from YouTube videos. Much of those videos are written and produced by other kids. Which inspired my sons to put up their own instructional videos.
Now my sons are in a race with their friends for viewers and followers on their three YouTube channels, MyWalter101, BillyBobRandom12345 and OrigamiAndMagicBrothers. As a proud parent, naturally I want you to visit their channels and see what they're doing. But more than that, this is a unique phenomenon.
You couldn't get the average kid to stand up in front of an audience and talk about his or her favorite topic. Or demonstrate a magic trick, or a guitar chord, or a hack on an iPod. Never gonna happen. But allow that same kid the privacy of his or her living room, the use of a camera built into a smartphone and the opportunity to upload a two- or three-minute instructional video on any given topic, and you've got solid gold.
As a result, there exists today an underground, invisible network of children taking turns as teachers and students, sharing with each other the skills, ideas, secrets and technological breakthroughs they cherish. This university without walls or national boundaries is, without exaggeration, unparalleled in human history. Children have always been at the mercy of parents, teachers and school administrators when it comes to the question of how, what and when they learn. Now the game has changed and the power has shifted to kids.
Obviously parental supervision is required; you don't need me to tell you just how dangerous and inappropriate the online world can be. What's most exciting about this phenomenon, however, is the fact that children are taking initiative to become teachers and sharers. They are not looking to make money doing this -- although few would deny the desire to have 5 million followers and the fame (and perhaps fortune) that would accompany such success. They're doing it for the love of the video game, hobby, hack or technique they're demonstrating to the world.
It's fascinating to imagine the new world that will arise when these online teachers reach adulthood. Their ethos is cooperation instead of compensation; amateurism instead of professionalism. How will they make a living? How will they translate the teaching skills they are acquiring into a livelihood? I don't know, but chances are, some of them will figure it out. And then they'll post their learning on YouTube, or whatever sharing technology exists at that time, and give the world the benefit of their knowledge and experience. Why not? They'll have been doing it for their whole lives.
New York Times best selling author Michael Levin is the father of Walter Levin (MyWalter101) and Isaac Levin (BillyBobRandom12345). The boys' joint YouTube channel is OrigamiAndMagicBrothers.