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Put yourself back into elementary or middle school and think about the way the world worked. Think about all of the things that were different: cars, computers, television, fashion, and just about everything else that we grew up knowing has changed. Some people might say these things have changed for the better, and some say they have changed for the worse, but the change itself is undeniable. This change has created a Generation Gap.
Parents had a different set of problems to deal with 20 years ago, and yet we still want to use the same techniques from that time in order to deal with the issues of today. Imaging trying to use a computer made in 1997 for work in 2017. How about trying to survive in our digital world with an old cell phone from the late 1990’s? It would be nearly impossible to survive in our world today using the tools from 20 years ago, so why would we rely on the same parenting techniques?
The world is changing, and our children are being exposed to new technology every day. In light of this changing world we have to prepare ourselves to teach our children the way to survive in the world in which they are growing up, not the world in which we grew up. Let’s talk about some of the important ways that the world has changed in the last couple of decades.
Access to Information
Think about yourself at age 10 or 12. You’ve been given an assignment at school and you have to collect information to complete the assignment. Where do you go? You answer, most likely, is something like “the library” or “the encyclopedia,” but the answer is different for children today.
Today we access information through the internet. We get our knowledge from Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Siri, or any number of other sources. Those other resources are still available, but they are not typically our first choice. So what’s the difference between these options? One word: Curation.
The books in a school library and the information in an encyclopedia have something in common: someone had the specific job of putting those items there, and part of that job is ensuring that the information included was appropriate for consumption by the consumer. The books in the school library are appropriate for students of a specific age, and the information in the encyclopedia is appropriate for most people, with opinions nowhere to be found.
The internet does not have this type of curation. Sure, there is curation of content everywhere online, but it does not serve the same purpose. Most of the sources we access, and that our kids access, are not curated in a way that makes them safe for children to use. This means that while our children have access to an abundance of information that they will find useful and appropriate, they will also encounter plenty of information that is neither useful nor appropriate.
For online searching with young children, consider using a search engine specifically designed for kids, like Kiddle or Kid Rex. For teens doing research online, try Google Scholar or Sweet Search. None of these sites are 100% effective at removing inappropriate content, but the effort will certainly yield better results.
Lack of Physical Boundaries
The primary concern of a parent is to make sure that their child stays safe. Years ago that meant doing everything you could to protect your child from physical dangers because those were the dangers that were possible. Parents were concerned about speeding cars, peeping toms, and “Stranger Danger,” but times have changed. The introduction of new technology has changed the landscape from physical to digital.
Many of us invest our money to protect our children in physical ways. We might buy nice houses in nice neighborhoods, install security systems and make sure that all of the doors are locked, or even join our neighborhood watch to keep an eye out for any suspicious behavior. While all of these efforts are commendable, the parent who believes that their responsibility stops there is leaving a lot of room for risky situations.
The only way that a predator could connect with a child 20-30 years ago may have been through physical contact. However, in the Digital Age, the ability to meet and communicate with strangers is easier than ever. Whether your child is using social media, playing online video games, or leaving comments on videos on YouTube, there is now the opportunity to communicate with people all over the world.
Many of us search our neighborhoods online to see where all of the registered offenders might be, and we make efforts to insulate our children from those potential dangers, but the internet allows a world of people to have access to our children that physical boundaries can’t stop. Instead, we have to learn methods to protect our children while they’re online, and teach them how to handle situations with which they may be otherwise unfamiliar.
First, make sure that your child’s device has some restrictions in place, like access to specific apps and websites, so that you reduce the ability to connect with strangers. This restriction should be placed on every device that the child can access, including yours. Some devices, like Apple and Android devices, have features like this built-in, while others might require you to download or install additional software. Either way, do your research on how to best implement these restrictions and make sure that they’re in place.
Second, teach your children how to respond in a situation that makes them uncomfortable. They may receive a message from a stranger, click on an inappropriate link, or be prompted to give away personal information without much warning. Children should immediately stop what they’re doing and tell an adult what situation has made them uncomfortable. There should also be an understanding that your child’s safety comes first, and that they shouldn’t fear punishment when their safety is on the line.
Private Information Required Online
One of the topics I cover the most frequently when talking to students is which information is appropriate to share online, especially if that information is being shared publicly. I stress the importance of not sharing pieces of private information online in any way, where I define private information as information that strangers don’t need to know. Private information includes things like address, date of birth, social security number, phone number, and many others. So I drill this idea into their heads: don’t share any of this personal information online in any way, but is that correct?
I think back to 2015 when I applied for Education Coordinator with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force at the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, the job I hold as I write this post. To do this I had to go online to the South Carolina Jobs website and create a profile where I detailed all of this private information and much more. Information I shared contained references, former employers, what schools I attended, and just about everything “impressive” I had done in the last 10 years. I didn’t really want to share this information, but it was necessary.
See, in the digital world we inhabit today, sharing information online is crucial. It is not something we can avoid, but instead it is something that is expected and necessary not only for us to thrive, but for us to merely survive. Many of us file taxes online, apply for jobs, get loans, apply for college, and we do all of these activities hoping that our information remains safe, because we’ve been told that it will.
But will it remain safe? Online information is at a premium now, and we’ve seen a rising number of cases where large corporations, medical facilities, and even government agencies have had their secure information compromised. The fact is that once we put our information online in any way, shape, or form, we run the risk of that information going places that we don’t want it to go and being seen by people that we don’t want to see it.
When it comes to talking about private information with your children we want to focus on helping them differentiate between a reputable place to share information, like a government website, and an unsecured place to share information, like through a post on a social media app. There is always the chance that the information will get compromised, but by only sharing our private information when it is absolutely necessary and through secure channels we can reduce the risk of that information being used against us.
Emphasis on Sharing Personal Information
First, we have to make the distinction between private information and personal information. Private information is, as described above, information that we wouldn’t want strangers to know about us. We typically view this as sensitive information, like our addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, etc.
Personal information, on the other hand, is information that we don’t think of as sensitive in a normal situation. Personal information might include things like: who we are with, what we are doing, where we are, what we’re eating or drinking, what we’re thinking, how we’re feeling, and any number of other pieces of innocuous data that we don’t think can or will be used against us. So what are we talking about here?
Social media has many definitions, but it is generally accepted as any platform that has the primary goal of connecting and facilitating communication between 2 or more people. This can take many forms, but some of the most popular social media platforms at the moment include Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Musical.ly, and Houseparty. We use these sites and apps to share pictures, videos, statuses, messages, comments, likes, and just about any other form of communication you can think dream up.
Now, it might be more common for kids and teens to be involved in social media than their parents, but there is a phenomenon that we have all experienced regardless of our age or social media use. Do you know someone who shares too much on social media? Perhaps someone who posts pictures of every piece of food that they eat? Maybe a friend who updates their profile constantly with negative or depressing information? It could even be the friend who has the perfect family that constantly posts pictures from all of their vacations while they are away from home.
The unfortunate truth is that almost all of us know at least one of these people. It may be a friend, family member, or acquaintance, but most of us see this happen, or at least hear about it, more than we’d like.
So we have to ask ourselves a question: if these people, who are, presumably, mature, responsible adults, post too much information about themselves online, how in the world can we expect our children to not make the same mistakes? The truth is that we can’t. Our children are human, which means that they will make mistakes, and they will likely make more mistakes than the adults you see doing the same thing.
We expect children and teenagers to automatically be experts in technology and social media just because they are born into a world where this technology exists. They are still children, though. They are learning, and most often they learn by making mistakes. We still need to teach and guide them in their journey, and that means not overreacting when they do make one of these mistakes.
Your child might spend hours with their smartphone or playing video games, but this doesn’t make them any more of an internet safety expert than you driving to work every day makes you a vehicle safety expert.