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Internet safety: Who’s teaching our kids?

By Lynette T. Owens

Over the past year, Internet safety for kids seems to have risen moderately in importance among the general public.  It is harder for me now than a year ago to meet a parent or teacher that doesn’t have a story to tell about their school, where some kids may have gotten onto the Internet and into trouble.  And over the last year, the media seems to have helped propel some of the issues (particularly cyberbullying) to the fore.  But while this may be the trend, Internet safety education still seems to hover in the middle of the to-do-list for parents and schools.

The Pew Research center reports that 73% of teens use social networking sites and 75% of them own a cell phone (in the U.S.).  Using the Internet is an important life skill, so simply ignoring the issues or denying kids’ access to the Internet is not an option.  We clearly need to be providing education to our kids on how to be safe, responsible citizens online. 

But who is supposed to do it?  Parents?  Schools?  The technology industry?  The government or law enforcement?  There are many initiatives aimed towards teaching kids to be safe online – from all of these groups.  But these efforts are for the most part disconnected and the messages sometimes inconsistent.  So if there were one party responsible, who would it be?

Therein lies the challenge.  Because internet safety for kids encompasses such a vast array of issues – from cyberbullying to identity theft to plagiarism – it is difficult for a single group to become deeply expert in it and to take on the sole responsibility of educating our kids.

Frankly, I believe that no one party is responsible.  It absolutely must be a collective effort.  Kids are learning to use the Internet for various purposes and have access to it through different devices and in different places, so we all have a role in teaching them to use it safely.

The ideal situation?  

  1. Parents/guardians should be the ones to first introduce kids to the Internet.  They would guide their kids on how to technically use it, but also how to be good, safe citizens of it.  They should consider how and when their kids access the Internet as they age – through a cell phone, personal laptop, at a friend’s house, through an iPod touch or video game console.  They don’t need to become expert in all things Internet safety all at once, but focus on the relevant sites and devices their kids are using through various times of their life. (Surfing websites from a home PC, texting on a cell phone, social networking on their own laptop/cell phone.)
  2. Schools should provide internet safety education.  This would begin around age 8 or 9 when kids are using the Internet more heavily for school and when many of them may be on the verge of getting a cell phone.  As kids near their teen years, some newer issues will need to be addressed such as using social networking sites, cyberbullying, sexting, etc.  Kids would need to understand the rules for using the internet both on school property and with their classmates as well as being safe when they use the Internet anywhere and with anyone.
  3. Schools and parents together should try to institute parent education via a parent-teacher organization forum (PTO, PTA, PTSO, home-school association, etc.).  Teachers should make parents aware when computers, specifically Internet-connected devices, will be introduced to kids during school and for what purpose.  Both groups should discuss where the boundaries are in terms of disciplinary action when students violate Internet use policies, in or out of school.  It should be very clear what, when, how, and who will take on any necessary disciplinary action.
  4. School technology departments should employ the appropriate infrastructure to keep kids safe online while using school equipment or while on school property.     They should develop acceptable use policies that reflect a broad range of internet safety issues (such as bullying, etc.).  This would require a true collaboration between the school’s IT department, the administration, and parents.  Student information – like anyone’s personal information – could be at risk of theft or misuse.  So IT departments should be using technology that can best keep this information secure from those who may be trying to take advantage of students.
  5. Older kids should mentor younger students.  This is already done in many schools to encourage the development of literacy skills.   During her kindergarten year, my daughter was happily paired with a 4th grade reading buddy.  In an ideal situation, schools would do the same to encourage digital literacy.
  6. Technology companies should consider kids safety from the beginning.  Many organizations can impact kids’ online safety – from the services that kids use online (social networks, gaming sites, entertainment sites for viewing, listening to or downloading things) to the way kids get connected to those services (laptop, cell phone, video game console, etc.)  The consideration of kids’ safety is happening to some/varying degree among technology companies, through self-governance, pressure from advocacy groups, and government regulation.  But I think as parents and teachers become increasingly educated about the issues, it is in these companies’ best interest to consider kids’ online safety in the early stages of product development.  They risk being labeled ‘unsafe’ (or at the very least, ‘uncaring’) otherwise.

This list is certainly not comprehensive, and most of these things are already happening in isolation.  However, it is not yet a common occurrence to see them happening in concert.  Communities of parents and schools need to first recognize that everyone is responsible for teaching kids Internet safety.  Only then can we be sure we are raising a wiser, safer generation online.

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Tags :acceptable use policycell phonescyberbullyingdigital citizenshipeducationinternet safetykidsonline safetyPTO/PTAsextingsocial networking

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