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  • Aug 22, 2014
  • Updated: 9:56am
LifestyleFamily & Education

Teaching kids how to stay safe and savvy online

Don't get caught on the dark side of the web

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 9:52am

Our children often lead two lives: a relatively unplugged life in the classroom where essays may still be written out on paper, and mobile phone use is discouraged, if not banned; and a digitally saturated life beyond the school gates, where smartphones and gaming devices come out once the school bell rings.

In his book Digital Community, Digital Citizens, educational technology expert Jason Ohler questions if that is the best way to prepare young people for adulthood. "Should we consider them to have one life that integrates their lives as students and digital citizens instead?" he asks.

The digital revolution has made it imperative to know how to engage both realities at once.

Cyber-safety consultant Robyn Treyvaud's interactions with students are telling about the divide between what concerns young people and what adults are most worried about. The No1 concern teenagers have is bullying and harassment because it informs their social circle.

Next comes internet addiction and identity theft.

Some young web users show impressive self-awareness when they say, "It is all I can think of. When I am at school, I can't wait to go home and get into the game, into World of Warcraft and Moonscape where I can meet all my online friends."

Alarmingly, pornography is also a concern.

But that's not to say young people are looking for pornography, Treyvaud says. "In many situations, they are playing games where they will win prizes, which will require them to share e-mail addresses, and pornography is sent to them."

Unfortunately, studies show that only one in five youths who have had bad experiences in such situations would tell an adult. Our digital natives, who cannot imagine being disconnected from their online friends, worry that the grown-ups would then deny or restrict their access to the internet.

The good news is they would rather deal with the issue than disappear offline, so we need to harness that desire and equip them with the skills to deal with it successfully. This means teaching young people how to be responsible participants in their digital communities - a task that requires relatively sophisticated skills, experts say.

At South Island School in Aberdeen, digital literacy skills are mapped into lesson plans so that students are exposed to the concepts before they graduate.

Media studies is "where kids learn to 'lift the veil and see behind the curtain', acquiring the meta-language required to discuss what is really happening when they see a raunchy online advertisement or the like", says Iain Williamson, the school's media literacy co-ordinator.

Williamson's media studies class is a space where students can discuss topics ranging from copyright issues to identity portrayal and pornography without feeling self-conscious. His students feel they are being treated maturely, such as when academic discussions about the male gaze can lead to fruitful conversations about how to respond to sexy pictures online.

But digital citizenship isn't just a matter of identifying a checklist of skills, which can be taught in the classroom and forgotten once mastered. Digital-savvy cannot replace the basics of critical thought, and learning to communicate and collaborate with people from different backgrounds.

Teenagers pick up habits from what they observe at home as much as from friends, so parents can do a lot during conversations at the dinner table, Williamson says. The family could discuss how people could respect and protect each other online, issues related to identity and self-expression, personal privacy, ownership and authorship, personal and information credibility, and online etiquette in forums, blogs, social networks and the like.

But it's important for parents to set good examples, too.

"When parents engage in phone conversations at the dinner table or ignore what is happening around them, when they are on their mobile devices, children learn that those sorts of behaviour are perfectly acceptable as well," Williamson says.

"Parents have to be at least willing to talk about these issues if they want their children to learn the appropriate behaviour without coming across as hypocritical."

Mind your e-manners:

  • What we do online spreads quickly and stays for a long time. Tell teens to think before they post.
  • Anything we say and do could be copied, pasted and sent worldwide in a heartbeat. Teach teens how to use privacy settings. The best way to protect secrets is not to post them.
  • Kindness still counts. Anonymity online can lead us to say and do things that we normally wouldn't. We should encourage teens to stand up for others and build relationships rooted in respect.
  • Values in real life extend to virtual ones, too. So cheating and stealing is also wrong online.
  • Source: Common Sense Media



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