By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall, Go Ask Mom Blogger

Mehul Shah and Michael Jones see the benefits of teaching kids to code daily.

Shah owns theCoderSchool locations in Raleigh and Cary. Jones is a code coach at the Raleigh location, part of a national chain of coding programs for kids.

Momentum Learning

Momentum Learning Inc., a coding school headquartered in Durham. (Photo Courtesy of Momentum Learning)

“I think it’s amazing,” Jones said. “I have one kid, in particular. She’s doing a bakery delivery simulator. It’s a really cool little game. I’m sure her friends have tried it, and she loves it. We’ve worked on it every week. It’s one of the highlights of the things that she does.”

The girl’s game, said Jones, was created on Roblox, the massively popular gaming platform that features user-generated content.

But, of course, that innocent bakery simulator was not the Roblox game that made national headlines this week. In that game, a seven-year-old Raleigh girl’s avatar was sexually attacked as she explored a virtual playground. After her mom complained, Roblox took the game down and is working to “reduce” the opportunity for similar incidents to happen again, company officials said in a statement.

The story prompted countless conversations and posts on social media where parents said they were rethinking their kids’ access to Roblox. Any exodus related to the incident is likely a blip among Roblox’s total users, but it’s one more example that bad actors are navigating the internet along with our kids.

Jones, who is one of the developers behind Murder Mystery X, which currently is among the top 30 games on Roblox right now, said he’s not surprised it happened.

“I was not surprised, not because I expected it, but … when you have that many people interacting on your platform, there are going to be negative experiences,” he said. “I’m actually surprised that it isn’t more common given those numbers.”

Not just Roblox

At theCoderSchool, before kids launch into learning how to build games on Roblox or with any number of other platforms or languages, including Python, Java, Swift and C++, they get a lesson on internet safety as part of its Tech Talk curriculum.

TheCoderSchool offers camps, but many kids take part in its weekly, year-round coding programs where they work directly with a coding coach and take home work to practice on between sessions.

The internet safety discussion includes information about the dangers of cyberbullying and encourages kids to ignore mean or threatening messages, block the sender and tell a trusted adult.

Kids also learn about “online bad guys.” They’re told to use their “spidey-sense.” When they feel like somebody is being weird or creepy online, they’re probably right, so speak up and tell a trusted adult.

“Even on a Google search, you can run into bad players,” Shah said. “You don’t have to be on Roblox and get into trouble.”

Kids build skills coding

But, experts say there are still plenty of benefits for kids who want to learn how to code. Building something online helps develop problem solving and critical thinking skills, Shah said.

“We are going towards the age where whether you are a doctor or a lawyer, you’re still going to need some kind of coding ability,” he said.

According to one article in the Harvard Business Review, computer science is as “vital in the arts and sciences as writing and math are.” The article, written by faculty members at Carnegie Mellon University, recommends that a basic computer programming course should be required at ninth grade and points out that computer science instruction in the United States is “woefully behind” many other countries.

Learning how to code also means kids can become not just consumers of countless games, but the creators of them, Shah said.

Users can create content in both Roblox and Minecraft, but those platforms are just two of many online sites where kids can learn to create. PixelPad, Trinket, Scratch from MIT and MIT’s App Inventor are platforms or engines where users can build their own games and experiences.

“We think a lot of these game companies add value by making it available to code,” Shah said.

Online safety, knowledge key
As they move about the internet, Shah just said parents and kids just need to know that bad guys exists in both the real and virtual world and take precautions.

At his house, where he and his wife have two kids, ages 10 and 12, they have one strict rule: “We don’t have computers in their rooms,” he said. “Computers need to be outside … in a common area so they don’t get into trouble accidently.”

And, he said, there is an ongoing discussion about potential dangers.

“Just like bad players are walking the street,” he said, “the online platform doesn’t buffer you from that experience.”