Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Thoughts for Safer Internet Day

As parents we sometimes feel that young people know more about the internet than we do. Yet there are real risks in internet use, like exposure to inappropriate content or bullying. We have to trust our real world experience and use it as a guide to internet safety.

We have the ability to help and guide our children

Obviously, but many of us are afraid of technology, of computers and the web. We don’t really understand it all.  We should not let that make us forget all the other things we do know and understand.

When we are unfamiliar with technology, stumble and make mistakes where they fly through, it is easy to think that they know better than us. Easy, but a major mistake.

People will tell you that the young are the digital natives we are the digitally naïve. Not true—this is a myth. Young people not us—adults, parents—are naïve in the real world and the web—technology—is part of the real world. Forget about some mysterious place called cyberspace, remember we are all using real technology, doing real tasks, in the real world. 

Young people tend to believe the first thing they find on Goggle. They probably won’t check who is telling them something—they see no difference between ‘Johnny says that….’ and ‘The Government has announced that...’ Maybe they’re not always wrong, but the point is the do not see a difference. Children—young people—are really the ‘digital naïve’. The feel confident and at home with technology yet they too often lack the knowledge and life experience to realistically judge what is being said to them.

We tell our children the story of Pinocchio so that they understand that there are sly foxes who will try to trick them—like the fox who got Pinocchio to trade his school book for a ticket to Runaway Island, and life as a donkey.  We need to find new stories, new ways to arm our kids for this new connected world. We have our knowledge, our experience, and our moral compass to help guide them.

Is nobody in charge of Internet safety?

No. It is important to understand the basic rule of the Internet, anyone can connect anything, and send any type of data, and there is no central control. I’m not talking about a free spirit hippy view of the web. I am actually describing the technical architecture that is used by all devices across the world to connect together. Anything, anywhere, no control, are the rules that the Internet connection of a laptop, a mobile phone, or a games console are built to comply with.

The hardware, the phones, computers, game consoles we use every day are part of a physical network that connects everybody everywhere. The network can carry anything. There is no central control.

Once we accept that if it’s digital it’s connected we can help our children stay safe.

What are the risks, and what can we do?

Here is my summary of a few of the main risks, and some brief pointers to how they should be approached:

  • The Internet makes it easy to meet strangers using instant messaging, Skype, or chat rooms.  Chat is part of many online games; even for children under ten.

    We need to remember two things. First is that actually most times it is god to be able to communicate, that’s why the internet is such a part of our lives.

    Second we need to remind our children that the Internet is a very big place. Just because a few people in one group think something is normal behaviour does not make it so.

  • A teenager using a laptop in their bedroom feels safe, and anonymous. The dis-inhibiting effect of technology makes it easy for them to do and say things they never would in person.. Spreading embarrassing pictures or information, bullying or even suggesting they self harm, can make your child’s life miserable.

    In guiding our children we need to remind then that technology does not change the rules of right and wrong. The rule should be do not do this unless you would feel comfortable if everybody knew.

  • It’s easy to send a text or an email, share a picture with friends, but once you do the genie is out of the bottle; it’s uncontrollable. Yet even teenagers who share other people’s private pictures think it won’t happen to them.

    Parents need to guide children as they a create permanent public records that might be seen by future employers, or even their future spouse or in-laws!

  • Sex sells, and the web contributes to the premature sexualisation of children, but the problem is not simply exposure to porn. Self made porn and sexting, sharing naked pictures on mobile phones, are things many teens are already aware of.

    Remember that many of the large business that our families deal with on a daily basis are also part of the sex industry, for example both Sky and UPC sell adult content.

    As parents we need to understand where the pressure to participate is coming from, to help our children resist being pressured in the wrong direction.

These are just a few pointers. If you have any questions please e-mail me.