Can Google Teach a Generation to Judge the Internet?

Google’s 'Be Internet Awesome' is fun, ambitious, and maybe necessary

Illustration of a kid at a school desk with a massive

Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The internet has always been a tough place for children. For much of the World Wide Web’s early history, I described letting unaccompanied children go online like dropping them off alone in a dangerous neighborhood. It was a chilling image that I assumed nudged parents in the direction of making online time a family activity.

My perception of the internet as a generally trustworthy place with some dark alleys was supported by most experts. In 1996’s The Parents’ Guide to the Information Superhighway: Rules and Tools for Families Online (1996), authors Wendy Lazarus and Laurie Lipper wrote:

“Although rare, there have been incidents where individuals have used the internet to contact children and young people with the intent of harming them. Just like teaching a child to drive a car, you need to provide your child with some tools to help him or her stay safe. The commonsense rules about curation with strangers apply just as strongly.”

In other words, for the first few years of the internet, ”Stranger Danger,” was parents' primary concern.

2019’s online experience is a much more complex place with the need for a new kind of internet literacy.

Interland

Google's Interland loading screen

I was reminded of this as I opened Google’s homepage this week where, under the stark search box, I found what looked like a cross between a tiny Wall-E Eve-like robot and a bug, along with the message: “Let’s help kids Be Internet Awesome.” Intrigued, I clicked to open a page with a video explaining some of the complexities young digital natives face and how teaching them new internet skills can help them be “safe, confident explorers of the online world.”

To be honest, I initially skipped the video and clicked on the cheery looking robot and message, “Play your way to Internet Awesome: Explore Interland.”

Is Interland supposed to be Google’s game-like representation of the Internet? Sort of.

The game is a Super Mario Bros.-like experience where your little robot character is tasked with jumping from one tiny grass-covered island to another (it runs on most mobile and desktop browsers). Instead of little Goombas, your robot encounters other sad robots whom you cheer up by spreading love (with the hearts you collect along the way), kindness, and encouragement.

There are occasional scene-setting on-screen messages, like the one that explains somewhat cryptically, “Vibes of all kinds are contagious, for better or worse.” I don’t usually think about “vibes” when I’m online and I wonder if any kid would understand, but I got the point. The game is not just about cheering other robots up, it’s about spreading positivity.

There are even bullies in Interland. They’re orange and five times larger than the other robots, looming over them and making the tiny bots feel bad (the little bots hang their heads in the most adorable way). You can jump on giant red buttons to literally block the bullies with physical walls — if only it were so easy. There are also tiny bullhorns scattered around that let you “report” the bullies who are then beamed up and away from what the game calls “Kindness Kingdom.” It’s all a little too on-the-nose, but probably fine for young minds.

Interland never addresses why people are unkind on the Internet, but it does pause between levels to quiz you on some core concepts, like what to do when people are bullying you or others.

Teach the Children Well

Be Internet Awesome web page

As a game, Interland is well-crafted enough to engage and entertain causal gamers of any age, but it’s ultimately only the candy carrot Google dangles in front of children and educators in its quest to teach some deeper and more meaningful truths about our modern Internet experience.

Google’s Be Internet Awesome (no relation to First Lady Melania Trump’s Be Best campaign) offers something I never imagined we’d need for the internet: a curriculum that trains children how to be on, interact with, and digest the internet. The Be Internet Awesome Curriculum — all 98 pages of it — seeks to step into the widening gap between what parents tell their children about the Internet and social media and what they encounter on a daily basis.

Decades ago, when there was a single home computer and mobile broadband technology didn’t exist, parents could, with some effort, control access to the internet. Now children are often online more often than their parents. For better or worse, the youngsters know more than the adults. In this light, shifting online education to the classroom makes sense, especially when you consider how fundamental digital technology is to our 21st century existence.

After 40 minutes of making robots happy and corralling and spiriting away bullies, I put aside Google’s Interland to explore the Be Internet Awesome curriculum. In it are five core principals that form the foundation of the program:

  •  Share with Care
  • Don’t Fall for Fake       
  • Secure Your Secrets       
  • It’s Cool to Be Kind       
  • When in Doubt, Talk It Out

Some of the lesson plans sound a little silly, like the one designed to help young people keep their personal information private. The lesson asks kids to make a “pretend” secret and then share it with a partner. It encourages them to talk about what it means to have and share these secrets and even have them revealed to the whole class. I’m not sure, though, how keeping fake secrets will translate into understanding that some real stuff must be kept private.

Fake News

Google's Be Internet Awesome curriculum PDF

I’m more impressed by Google’s critical thinking and media literacy lesson plan. Granted, these are tough concepts for children to grasp, but I applaud the effort. For “Spotting Disinformation Online” activity, Google uses the analogy of finding mistakes hidden on a picture (they even offer two drawings where one has a dozen or so subtle alterations that the kids have to identify). From the lesson plan:

 “Did you ever play one of those games where you hunt for mistakes hidden in a picture? Sometimes dealing with news is like that. There are a lot of people and groups who are so passionate about what they believe that they twist the truth to get us to agree with them. When the twisted information is disguised as a news story, that’s disinformation.”

The plan gets quite specific, instructing students on how to spot fake URLs, read headlines critically, check sources, consider motivations (that’s only going to work for older students), find confirmation for the story, and use common sense.

It’s quite a lesson.

Google’s Be Internet Awesome plan is ambitious and praiseworthy, but the effort to span the curriculum from the youngest student who might enjoy the simple video game to, I assume, teens who can grasp some of the concepts in the critical thinking lesson might be stretch.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be amazing if this one misinformation and critical thinking lesson plan was taught in every school, from elementary through college?