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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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April022008

Strengthening Student Resilience to Online Risks

A new report commissioned by the British prime minister tackles the thorny challenge of addressing online safety for young people. The report urges people to put the relative threat of online predators in perspective, while at the same time noting that schools and parents must to more to give students the media literacy skills required to use the Internet responsibly.

Last September, British prime minister Gordon Brown commissioned clinical psychologist Tanya Byron to conduct a comprehensive review of potential digital threats faced by young people, both online and via video games. For the next six months, Dr. Byron gathered data, analyzed previous studies and conducted survey research in both the U.K. and the U.S. The fruit of her labor is a comprehensive report of her own, known as the Byron Review. A whopping 226 pages long, the review is a comprehensive, even-handed look at digital media and online safety. I urge all of you to review it, particularly those sections dedicated to Internet safety.

It’s striking how Dr. Byron manages to acknowledges the fears of parents, while at the same time putting those fears in a broader context. “There is a generational digital divide which means that parents do not necessarily feel equipped to help their children in this space – which can lead to fear and a sense of helplessness,” she wrote. “This can be compounded by a risk-averse culture where we are inclined to keep our children ‘indoors’ despite their developmental needs to socialise and take risks.”

On the other side of this digital divide, there are countless young people who feel like they are masters of digital technology, despite the fact they often use these tools naively or recklessly because of a lack media literacy and critical thinking skills. “While children are confident with the technology, they are still developing critical evaluation skills and need our help to make wise decisions,” she continued. And a cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work to prepare these young people; their individual developmental level needs to be considered. “We need to take into account children’s individual strengths and vulnerabilities, because the factors that can discriminate a ‘beneficial’ from a ‘harmful’ experience online and in video games will often be individual factors in the child. The very same content can be useful to a child at a certain point in their life and development and may be equally damaging to another child. [Emphasis added by Andy] That means focusing on the child, what we know about how children’s brains develop, how they learn and how they change as they grow up.”

To illustrate her point, she talked about another common safety issue that every parent must deal with: crossing the street safely. First, we hold their hand when they cross the road. We teach them to think, look both ways and then cross. When we see that they are starting to understand this we let them cross walking beside us, without holding on to them. Eventually we let them do it alone, maybe watching from a distance at first, but then unsupervised. And throughout this, the environment supports them with signs and expected behavior from others in the community – the flashing green man on the crossing sign, crosswalks, speed limits and other responsible adults.

Much of the responsibility to keeping kids safe online, Byron argues, falls on parents. While there are a variety of tools parents can employ to make their kids’ Internet experience safer, they only work if parents actually understand the tools themselves. As schools increase their own media literacy programs to help kids navigate the Net safely, parents must play a greater role in the process as well. “So restricting children’s access to harmful and inappropriate material is not just a question of what industry can do to protect children (e.g. by developing better parental control software), but also of what parents can do to protect children (e.g. by setting up parental control software properly) and what children can do to protect themselves (e.g. by not giving out their contact details online).”

One particular passage is worth quoting in full:

The internet and video games are now very much a part of growing up and offer unprecedented opportunities to learn, develop and have fun. However, with new opportunities come potential risks. My recommendations will help children and young people make the most of what all digital and interactive technologies can offer, while enabling them and their parents to navigate all these new media waters safely and with the knowledge that more is being done by government and the internet and video game industries to help and support them.

We live in an increasingly risk averse culture where we are limiting our children’s out of home experiences because of fear of harm. However, risk taking is a developmental imperative of childhood - young people and children will always want to explore boundaries by taking risks, and they will sometimes play this out, at home, in the digital world with many parents unaware of this. In the same way that we teach our children how to manage ‘real world’ risks, for example crossing roads, in stages and with rules, supervision and monitoring that changes as they learn and develop their independence, we need to engage with children as they develop and explore their online and gaming worlds.

This is also about overcoming the generational ‘digital divide’ where parents do not feel equipped to help their children because they didn’t grow up with these sophisticated technologies themselves and therefore don’t understand them; this can lead to fear and a sense of helplessness. This is compounded by children and young people’s greater skill and confidence in using new technology. “But by putting in place the right roles and support for children, young people and families we can reduce much of the anxiety that currently exists by taking a joint and shared responsibility with everyone – industries, government, education, child welfare organisations and law enforcement - playing their part. A useful way for us all to think about this is to look at how we protect children in places of benefit and risk in the real (offline) world: public swimming pools.

Here there are safety signs and information; shallow as well as deep ends; swimming aids and lifeguards; doors, locks and alarms. However children will sometimes take risks and jump into waters too deep for them or want to climb walls and get through locked doors – therefore we also teach them how to swim. We must adopt the same combination of approaches in order to enable our children and young people to navigate these exciting digital waters while supporting and empowering them to do so safely.

“Just like in the offline world, no amount of effort to reduce potential risks to children will eliminate those risks completely,” concluded Dr. Byron. “We cannot make the Internet completely safe. Because of this, we must also build children’s resilience to the material to which they may be exposed so that they have the confidence and skills to navigate these new media waters more safely.” -andy

Filed under : People, Policy, Research, Safety

Responses

Where better to make up for the digital divide between parents and their children than in education? Wait, well maybe not. School districts are discouraged from allowing any ‘social’ tools online because of the media stories about dangers to kids. This article does a good job of highlighting how, while those stories are sad and necessary, we are shortchanging our students education out of fear.

Teaching kids to be responsible is a must, because, sooner or later, they will be on their own. This applies to everything in life, not just the internet. I have found that some parents hold schools to unbelievable standards while letting their children use the internet unsupervised at home. We are all in this together and need to prepare young people as much as possible to make responsible decisions.

One of a teachers responsibility is safety. It is important that we ensure students are educated by the hazards of the internet. Although we may instruct them to avoid giving personal information, we must remember that kids are curious and forgetful. We must continually intergrate internet safety to our students. There is no way to fully protect them but we can equip them. I love how the media is getting involved discussing cyber bullying.

I am glad you mention how children develop differently, and gain critical thinking skills as they mature. I find in this generation, parents either over-shelter children, preventing them from learning real life skills, or they think their children are independent thinkers, able to make choices on their own. (Which they are not, especially in the face of the internet.) I feel parents should be very involved with their child’s internet usage. Children should be guided towards correct usage, and like what was mentioned, how to navigate dangerous areas. Shouldn’t educators also be responsible for teaching internet skills? The internet is used in educational settings and is required for many assignments. I believe we should teach students, step-by-step, how do protect themselves. A fake social network could be set up as a teaching tool for navigating other sites.

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