Do you know how to use a computer? Under a certain age, that question sounds ridiculous. Those words will be even more foreign by the time your kid becomes an adult. Using computers is something people simply do.
But not all computers, or the operating systems that run them, are created equal. Nor are they neutral. The software we use influences our values, assumptions, and skills. What habits and morals do you want to pass to your kids?
This isn’t a post about sticking your baby at a computer. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against sticking kids in front of screens before the age of two. Though that hasn’t stopped app developers, phone manufacturers, and accessory producers from trying.
This is about slightly older kids, those ready to figure out a keyboard. The OS they use matters, and Linux might be the best one to start them off with. Let’s talk about why.
1. Linux Doesn’t Treat You Like a Consumer
Many of us live in consumption-based societies. Advertisements bombard us our entire lives, encouraging us to buy more, own more, and hoard more. There isn’t a problem that can’t be solved by buying one more thing.
On Windows and Mac OS X, this situation is no different. While you don’t have to, both expect you to purchase most of your applications. This means more ads.
As your child uses a computer, they will be told they need to buy more apps and games. The situation is significantly worse on smartphones and tablets. This will hit your wallet, sure, but it also fosters more consumption and digital hoarding. The computer joins your TV and other media in teaching your child how to be a consumer.
On Linux, your kid will still hit a point where they want more software, but when that time comes, they won’t need to ask for your credit card. As long as their account has permission, they can head to the repos and download additional software for free. This changes the relationship between them and their computer. It’s no longer another way for them to spend money. Instead, the computer is a tool, one that encourages creativity and exploration.
And that’s just the beginning.
2. Linux Encourages Giving and Sharing
Share your toys! Parents of siblings know how this issue inevitably arises. But the message is an important one. At such a young age, few would argue that kids should learn the importance of hoarding and selfishness over sharing.
As we get older, this message becomes less clear. Advertisements encourage us to increase what we own. Our culture worships people who acquire many times more income than they need, and we’re told to aspire for that same wealth. Giving, whether through charity or some other cause, is treated as an afterthought reserved for generous people or those with money left over after all of their spending.
Linux flips the script. Without having to spend money on software, apps feel less like products and more like extensions of the computer. Your child will grow up with the concept of software being something developers create for others’ benefit.
If your kid takes up coding some day, they make view the act as a way to expand on what a computer can do. They may feel compelled to share the results with others, much like members of the scientific community. They may contribute back to a broader community, rather than view their skills as a way to create an app that will make them rich some day.
3. Linux Teaches Conservation
The electronics industry is filled with waste. Products come with a lifespan of one or two years. Many “smart” gadgets can’t receive updates, with their makers using that as a reason for you to buy the next model. Computers aren’t as bad, but new versions of Windows often need hardware upgrades. Apple doesn’t support older MacBooks with the latest versions of Mac OS X (or macOS, as it will soon be called).
This teaches children that electronics are cheap, temporary commodities. It encourages them to use and discard, rather than preserve and recycle.
Linux does the opposite. It works great on hardware that is several years old. You can use the OS to salvage an old PC with a dead hard drive. Stick it on a machine that can barely run Windows XP.
Linux can help you defeat planned obsolescence and teach your kids the value of taking care of what they own.
4. Kids are Free to Experiment
PCs are wonderful devices. No other tool provides the means to write a novel, draw a comic, produce a song, create a game, and make a video all in one place.
On commercial operating systems, the software needed to express this creativity can cost quite a bit of money. Sometimes the price tag extends into the hundreds of dollars.
On Linux, the tools are free. True, some of these applications don’t quite compare to their commercial counterparts. But we’re talking about kids here, not professionals. Plus if your child grows up learning how to produce quality work using free software, that will save them money down the line. Expressing their creativity will be less dependent on the size of their income, which empowers them to be more creative.
They can save money on hardware, too. Linux runs well on a PC that costs as much as taking the family out to dinner.
5. Linux is Educational, too!
You may not want to switch to Linux out of fear of missing out on certain educational programs. Fortunately, Linux has more than a few options of its own. Your kid can use their computer to practice math, map the world, study chemistry, and much more.
Plus with browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, most of the web remains at your fingertips. There is no shortage of web content aimed at enriching young minds, enough so that the selection of native applications hardly even matters.
That said, there are entire distributions designed to provide your kid with a safe space to learn. These often highlight a few educational apps while stripping out all of the other tools that your kid may not yet need. This is also one way to be sure they aren’t using the computer to do things that could put them at risk.
6. Linux Protects Kids from Malware
Viruses have targeted Windows for decades. The operating system is more secure now, but there’s still the risk of compromising your machine by installing software from an untrustworthy source. If your kids are older, they may stumble onto a dangerous email attachment. Maybe that folder of music a friend sent them wasn’t from the safest of sites. Some kids figure out how to safely navigate around these threats, but that isn’t always the case.
Linux isn’t 100% free of malicious software, but it is a significantly safer computing environment. Your child will still need to know how to avoid phishing and other social engineered attacks, but many of the internet’s threats will no longer apply. This is without installing any anti-virus software, which you can still do if you want, if for no other reason than to help protect any Windows computers that may share your home network.
While you’re at it, be sure to create a separate user account for your kids. You can even install software that limits their computer time.
Will Your Kid Miss Out?
Here in the US, most schools train students using Windows or Mac OS X. They learn how to use software like Microsoft Office, which doesn’t quite work well on a Linux machine. Sometimes they may need to run specific programs that only work on commercial platforms.
But this isn’t a roadblock. Since schools don’t know whether each child has a computer at home, they either supply computer labs or distribute laptops themselves. The vast majority of assignments, such as typing a paper or creating a presentation, don’t need Microsoft Office. A free alternative such as LibreOffice will do the job just as well, if not better. The interface won’t be the same as what your child learns at school, but knowing how to navigate similar applications is an educational experience and useful skill all its own.
With more schools transitioning to Chromebooks, this is increasingly less of an issue. Whatever your kid can do from a Chromebook, they can do from a Linux desktop running Google Chrome. In a nutshell, that’s all Chrome OS even is.
So, what say you? Have your kids ever used a Linux desktop? Do you think they would be receptive? Would they even notice? And if you’re unfamiliar with Linux yourself, maybe that would be a good place to start. Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
Image Credits: Catalin Petolea/Shutterstock