29 Apr

I went to a session on Cyber-safety at Biggie’s school on Monday night. I found it alarmist and sensationalist, with little practical application. Fraser tells me I shouldn’t be surprised.

Specific things I didn’t like about the presentation:

  • The consultant talked a lot about “This brave new world called Cyberia.” Now apart from the fact that I have *NEVER* heard anyone call it that, I object to the implication that there is one Internet with one unified approach (because I think it’s wrong), which seems to me to be what the brave new world comment suggests.
  • She didn’t really explain the terms that she was using. She mentioned blogs in passing, and said “they’re like journals but anyone can read them”. She mentioned web 2.0 and said “it allows them to experience the internet as other people do” – but the connotation was strongly negative.
  • She misquoted statistics. Case in point: she said that 25,000,000 american children (under 18s) have access to the internet. Of those, 1,000,000 have had unsolicited sexual advances over the internet. blah blah blah. Several sentences later, she says that 14% of american children have had a sexual experience over the internet.
    Me: Is that 14% of all children, or 14% of the 4% that you cited earlier?
    Her: Oh, of the 4%
    Bit of a difference between half of a percent and 14%. It is still potentially a shocking statistic, but it has no context or definition so it loses a lot of its power for me.
  • She spoke about what kids do online as though it were alien, different, foreign.
  • She gave other examples that I thought didn’t show what she thought – citing the example of a girl who gave a speech, she said “and she used mobile phone text language during her speech, like ‘TTYL’.” Now we said TTYL when I was in high school, and there were no mobile phones then. Kids like codes. Big deal.
  • A parent, reacting to the talk, said “and our kids waste two or three hours a night on the internet when they could be interacting with the family.” Hate to break it to you, concerned dude, but when I was a teenager I wasted two or three hours a night on the phone because I didn’t want to interact with my family. That hasn’t changed either.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think that we need to protect our children online and offline. I see scary statistics and they are genuinely frightening. There’s no doubt that there are predators out there and that the internet (and mobile phones, which she seemed to consider part of this Cyberia) can expose children and young people to far more peer pressure than ‘we’ experienced when we were young.

BUT the Internet is not actually a force for evil in our society. And I’m not sure how comfortable I am with what this woman (who will be working with the year 3-6 kids) is going to be telling my daughter.

Useful or interesting things I took from the talk:

  • Most parents, when asked how they supervise their kids’ internet access, say “trust”. [Me: Ha! Stupid parents!]
  • Children generally don’t tell their parents when something goes wrong. The main reason for this is that they fear losing their internet access. [Me: This is probably because the parents are scared of the Internet from coming to events like this and from what they read. Tell your kids that they will never lose internet access if they do the right thing, even if someone else does the wrong thing – but that NOT telling you if something bad or scary happens is definitely the wrong thing.]
  • A comment that you know you’re not part of their generation when you (a) read product manuals and (b) punctuate your text messages.
  • Some personal reflections – which were really riffs off what she was saying, rather than specific thinking points she identified.
  • Many kids are so attached to their mobile phones that they literally text all night – they sleep with their phone under a pillow, and are often woken several times a night by messages.
  • Many kids don’t really understand what “personal information” is. They know not to give out mum’s credit card number, but they may give out their address, phone number, etc. They also don’t really understand that one email can be forwarded many, many times.
  • A frightening number of parents have never seen common online acronyms like BRB, LOL etc. (I confess, I didn’t know POS – Parent Over Shoulder).

Things that I would have liked to see:

  • A concrete recommendation of a ‘net nanny’ type product or products that is appropriate for home use (yes, some kids will crack it, blah blah)
  • Some discussion of where to go beyond trust. Because I was a teenage girl once, and I was a very GOOD teenage girl, and I still wouldn’t trust one to be sensible online. Do you log all their traffic? Read random chats? Search logs for key words that you want to identify? The most constructive comment was that ‘some’ families choose to have computers in public places in the house rather than in bedrooms (this is certainly the approach we prefer).
  • Some discussion of why the internet is – or can be – good for kids. This talk lacked balance.

The most interesting outcome, for me, was the things it made me think about – mostly, my own online behaviour. I’m reasonably protective of the kids online, up to a point anyway, but not of myself. I probably need to clean up some stuff. Then again, if you work in the online space you are expected to have some sort of online profile.

More to the point, I need to articulate, in terms that my kids will understand, why it is not okay for them to meet up with someone they’ve got to know on the internet – even though they know that we do that with some people. And why they should never give anyone our address, even though we participate in secret santa programs. And how the people you meet online aren’t real. And, ummm, why file-sharing programs aren’t necessarily the Anti-Christ and going to see people carted off to gaol.

All of which got me thinking about protective behaviours – and how, as adults, we have additional context for the things that we do. We can make our own choices, and we can evaluate what we are being told and sometimes even pick up that something doesn’t quite make sense. The challenge is helping our kids to do that – because even if (as we sincerely hope) they never encounter a predator, they need to understand that people tell lies on the internet.

Judging by the sample at school the other night (very middle-class, professional, well-educated), many people are completely bamboozled by (and more than a little afraid of) the Internet. I have been wondering whether there would be interest in a course on Internet for parents – covering instant messenger, blogs and what they are (and how they can be good), blogging networks and why MySpace IS the Antichrist, what social networking REALLY is, how in some cases file sharing is actually legal, even how to use eBay … the side that says, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Of course, I have some other commitments to get out of the way first. But building walls between parents and children by making parents afraid of the ways their children communicate doesn’t seem terribly constructive to me.

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Posted by on April 29, 2007 in education


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