"The cookies of the internet" by Kalexanderson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Talking With Your Kids About Cookies

Although it does happen to be that time of year when young girls deliver all those delicious cookies you love that are distributed by the Girl Scouts (Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs, S’mores, Trefoils, etc. and YUM!), this post is not about those cookies. It’s about the cookies you and the kids you care about regularly accept when you are engaged online. You know, the ones on most of the websites you go to where you click the little box that says “I accept”? Yeah. Those ones. 

This post is about a recent conversation I had with my kids about those cookies and some other things about the ways they think about their experiences in connected spaces. That full conversation will be appearing soon on the Technopanic Podcast. It was a conversation that I initiated with my children (Charlie, 11 years; Annie, 9 years; Rose, 5 years) to explore the ways in which they are aware of how algorithms drive them, and others who use the internet, to particular content. Alongside similar investigations conducted by my colleagues in the Screentime Research Group, I explored: 1) whether my children knew this; 2) where and how they had learned about this; and 3) what they thought other kids needed to know to be safe and critical users of and contributors to the internet.

Before that conversation, I found out what they already knew, because the educator in me knew that a lot of these words and experiences are likely abstract to kids who aren’t very active on the internet or social media. While I felt like I’ve talked about other internet-related terms all the time in my rationale for why we don’t Snapchat or TikTok, I really struggled with how to kickstart that discussion with my kids for this task about algorithms. I opted to approach it through art. I asked my kids each to draw their take on a range of key words and concepts. Questions like “What does the internet look like? How does it work? What does social media look like? How do we stay safe online? What is shared vs. what is private? How do algorithms work?” guided their drawing and provided artifacts I used to elicit reflections on their learning months later. Those drawings and the transcripts of our conversations guiding their drawing are archived here.

I also made intentional efforts to increase access to digital tools for developmentally appropriate social connection. This was tempered with my monitoring of their screen time with the Apple tool in iPads/iPhones called “Screen Time.” I utilized this tool to facilitate conversations with them about what they did on their devices, about their data, and privacy. We also discussed how characters on television, in movies, and in books (less frequently) were impacted by their interactions around the internet. My nine year old read informational books about digital media and staying safe online. My eleven year old and I worked together through the Roblox terms of service to investigate how his information was being shared with others. My five year old learned how to add trusted contacts to her device…she explored making meaning through developmental spelling, emojis, and GIFs.

In our most recent conversation, Charlie shared what he understood about cookies and algorithms with his younger sister, and I summarized, “They’re taking little bits of data from your device that tell…the developers or the owners of the company…” that you visited their website, where you were located when you did that, and how long you stayed there. It’s like when you eat Oreos and leave little bits of chocolate everywhere on the counter. The internet leaves little bits of data on your computer and then uses that to personalize what you see. When I asked what their five year old sister ought to learn about cookies, algorithms, and the internet, they (in jest) replied “don’t eat the cookies.” Although I agree about not eating the bits of data that websites put on your devices, I believe it is important that your children start to learn how these things shape what they see on the internet, and that such conversations can and ought to happen when children are still young.

The fact is that most of the parents we surveyed did not talk with their children’s teachers about screentime, the risks and benefits of the internet and social media, or how algorithms work in their children’s lives. Moreover, few teachers report ever fielding such questions from parents, and not all schools are addressing these issues during the school day, especially in the early childhood and elementary grades.

Because of this reality, my main takeaway is that there is much work to be done. The intermediate grades (2nd through 5th) seem to be a good place to begin to emphasize this, because by 11 and 12 years old, so many kids are already on social media in one form or another. From these conversations with my kids it is clear that children are not mentoring one another, outside of the home, regarding the risks and rewards of the internet. As Charlie pointed out, “No one talks about that.” He generally isn’t in the hockey locker room schooling his friends: “did you know about the cookies and the algorithms?”

By giving my kids a few opportunities to be social via the internet and exposing them to other media forms in which technology, the internet, and/or social media play a role in the plot, I was able to start the conversations and make connections between what I wanted them to learn and their lived experiences–I was acting as a media mentor for them. If we restrict their lived experiences, it’s hard to teach about this stuff. We have to give kids some access before they find their ways into it on their own, without the knowledge they need to be safe and critical consumers. 

For parents, I recommend we start by learning about the websites, apps, and media your children are using and try to connect learning to those examples–leaning toward co-engagement with conversation over restriction until they have all the knowledge requisite to responsibly participate in connected or online spaces. Consider the following as you start: Do you know the websites, apps, and games your kids use at home and school? What are their friends doing/using outside of school? Is there crossover between the kinds of activity/sites they use between home and school?

P.S. Support your local Girl Scouts when you see them peddling their product outside of your local Walmart or hardware store. Buy some cookies. They ARE delicious and taste better than the cookies on the internet.

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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