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Online Safety for Kids: Danger on the Digital Playground

Published on: April 01, 2010

Texting teenAre you a “digital native” or a “digital immigrant”? If you’re older than 28, you’re probably an immigrant, according to Mike Donlin, manager of the cyberbullying, education and prevention program for the Seattle Public School District. That means the technology that’s practically second nature to younger people comes a bit harder to you — like most parents today.

Unlike their parents, today’s kids have been raised on text messages, Twitter and Facebook. They have been immersed in cyberlife from an early age, and have embraced these technologies in a natural and gradual fashion. That separation between digital natives and digital immigrants has resulted in a virtual playground that’s poorly supervised, Donlin says. Kids run the cyber social world, while parents and schools scramble to catch up and implement safeguards.

Setting boundaries for online use

Some parents attempt to keep kids safe from the cyberworld by delaying or preventing their access to cell phones and computers. But in an increasingly wired world, this line of defense ignores the importance of developing strong technology skills — skills most kids will need to compete in the workplace. As schools add more technology to their curricula, withholding computer access at home becomes more difficult — and less desirable.

Filtering and tracking software on school computers gives students some protection from inappropriate content, and parents should consider installing similar programs on computers at home.

But the same mischief that has always existed at recess and after school now has a new platform; digital media make the consequences of sexting (texting sexual messages or pictures) and cyberbullying greater than old-fashioned, low-tech forms of misbehavior.

The online consequences that kids can face

Pat Preib, director of the middle school at Seattle’s Villa Academy, worries that Facebook and other social media tools expose kids to dangers they’re just not ready for. She says these tools create a “global window into students’ private lives before they have developed a clear view of what ought to be private, and what can happen when something private gets out.”

Kids have always been susceptible to the consequences of bad judgment, but today’s consequences are greater, more widespread and more permanent. A secret revealed, a friendship betrayed — or worse — can be instantly transmitted to hundreds of people, and that digital record is all but impossible to erase. That’s why experts say kids need clear information and firm boundaries when they step into cyberspace.

Kathy Slattengren, parenting expert and the founder of Priceless Parenting in Kenmore, says that parents and schools have their work cut out for them in keeping up with technology. “Instead of snooping and spying on kids’ email, text messages and computer history, parents should take a more open, direct approach,” she says. If your child trusts you, Slattengren says, they will be more likely to seek your help when making tough decisions — and more likely to come to you if something goes wrong.

Katie McPhail is a Seattle freelance writer and a school communication coordinator.

5 top tips for keeping kids tech-safe

1. Define “private.” Don’t assume children know what information should be private. Be very specific about what is not OK to share. Help your child make a list of private information: family names, school, age, phone number and home address. Post this list near your computer.

2. Think before you type. Make sure children under­stand that nothing on the Internet is private, and that anything they write or send can be disseminated very quickly. Even if they absolutely trust the recipient, kids’ information can still end up in the wrong hands.

3. Don’t fall for fake. Remind kids that the online world isn’t always what it seems. It is difficult to determine what is true or accurate, and it is very easy for someone to make up an identity, write something that isn’t true or manipulate photographs to create false images.

4. Rules apply. Emphasize that children are always responsible for their own behavior, even online. They should never say or do anything mean spirited; lying, harassment and bullying are unacceptable. Similarly, this type of behavior from others should be reported to an adult immediately.

5. Speak up. Let children know it’s OK to tell you if they see something online that makes them uncomfortable. Let them know you will not be angry with them if they come to you for help.

Source: The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Washington State School Safety Center

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