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Keeping Kids Safe Cannot Be Outsourced

As I speak with parents (as I did two weeks ago when I spoke at St Mark’s Anglican Church on the topic of ’How to keep our children safe online‘), one thing continues to stand out – many parents have very little idea about what their children are doing online: both the opportunities and threats that the internet presents.

I was pondering why this is, and concluded that to a large extent, this is due to the particular point in history that we inhabit.

Parents, who played under the sprinkler, borrowed books from libraries and read documents on micro-fiche, have given birth to children who spend their holidays in front of screens, Google anything they don’t know, and are in constant contact with their friends via Facebook, SMS, MSN – or whatever else has caught their attention this week. Children are living in a different world that their parents know virtually nothing about.

In his submission to the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, Internode engineer Mark Newton made this point:

“We are currently in a state of flux:

On one hand we have a generation of people who have never known a time without ubiquitous Internet access, who have integrated it fully into their lives, using it fluidly and naturally, barely considering whether it’s even possible to perform certain tasks without it.

On the other hand we have a generation of people brought up in the legacy of previous communications systems, who often don’t understand the technology or the new social environments it is enabling.

Between the two extremes we have an amorphous mix of people with both attributes, who, in relation to the internet, are either fluent or foreign depending on the situation before them. Overlaid on top of the whole mess is a media environment which seems purpose-designed to produce befuddlement for the uninitiated.”

The difference in knowledge between parents and their children about the internet goes to the very core of the issue of internet filtering, and indeed parenting in 2010.

The people who are legislating, and the parents who are parenting, don’t understand the technologies that are so familiar to their children who have grown up using them. This affects how they seek to address the issues the internet presents our society with.

Parents hear a lot about the risks – porn websites, cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, addictions (internet, gaming, porn), identity theft, etc. and are rightly concerned. So, when the government proposes a filter, and the Australian Christian Lobby says, “Mandatory ISP level filtering of Refused Classification material [i.e. the company that provides internet to your home will be required by law to block access to certain pages of the internet]will make the internet safer for our children”, it’s understandable why this suggestion would attract mainstream support. Measures that protect children from some of the worst content online have got to be good, don’t they?

I thought so, and supported the idea of a filter for some time, despite opposition from just about everyone except the Australian Christian Lobby and Minister Conroy! I received tweets and emails and blog comments (as well as face-to-face conversations!) from people explaining why the filter is a bad idea. Just about everything I read about the filter was similarly negative. But I was sceptical. Lots of people oppose the filter for bad reasons (I wrote about 13 of the most common objections last week). I also thought that to reject the filter was to reject a basic measure for protecting our children, and when the average age a child views porn is 11 years and teenagers are lured to their death via Facebook, care is what our children desperately need.

But I’ve come to see that the proposed filter isn’t the way to do it. Basically, this is because the proposed filter is akin to cleaning the ocean with a bottle of detergent.

There is so much content on the internet that is unsuitable for children and teenagers. The proposed filter will block very little of it, for a very limited period of time, for a very small number of people, searching for a very specific type of content, while simultaneously lulling the non-tech savvy (i.e. most Australians) into a false sense of security about how safe their children are online. And our children need more than this.

A report for Microsoft Australia nailed this on the head:

“Most Australian parents are concerned about the safety of their children online. But new research shows that parents don’t back up their concerns with meaningful actions, and that in any event they might well be concerned about the wrong risks.”

Research by “For Safety’s Sake” for Microsoft Australia found that while 64 per cent of parents were concerned about cyber-safety, 65 per cent don’t use any parental control software and 62 per cent allow their kids to access the internet unsupervised.

Parents perceive their kids to be more at risk accessing the internet from friends’ homes than their own, and rate the risk from online predators as being more dangerous than exposure to pornography. In turn that’s seen as more dangerous than bullying, which is seen as more dangerous than identity theft. Few parents knew who their children’s friends were online.”

The proposed filter wouldn’t prevent your child from being bullied online, from having their identity stolen, from being stalked on Facebook, from being chatted to by a stranger, from being exposed to pervasive advertising or from accessing most of the forms of pornography that they can currently access. Yet, these are the things that concerns most parents, aren’t they?

The solution goes deep beyond a government imposed filter, and needs to address a greater need – helping parents to parent their digital natives.

I urge parents to get familiar with the opportunities and dangers of the technologies that your children are exposed to. Here’s 10 suggestions:

1. Understand what your child is doing online (put the computer in a public space, talk to your children, use accountability software).

2. Ask your child to explain to you what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

3. Talk to your child about your values, and how these should be lived out, regardless of the environment.

4. Filter the content that your family views online.

5. Understand the minimum age requirements for different websites and technologies (children under 13 should not be on Facebook).

6. Understand how these popular websites are used, and what the opportunities and threats are.

7. Understand what avenues are at your disposal if something goes wrong (e.g. your child’s Facebook account is hacked).

8. Consider how you will respond if you discover your child is acting inappropriately, or viewing inappropriate material.

9. Decide when or if your child will get a mobile phone.

10. Understand the new functions of mobile phones, and what the opportunities and threats are.

There’s lots more to be said, and on my blog I’ve listed links to some resources that can help with this. It’s not easy. It’s unfamiliar territory. Your children are miles ahead of you. But it’s not enough to remain ignorantly hopeful and claim “it’s too hard”. Your children need you to do this for them.

The government, industry and churches can and should do more to help parents. But ultimately, parents need to take greater responsibility.

Keeping children safe cannot be outsourced.

Steve Kryger is a Christian technology blogger. He runs Communicate Jesus - a website with daily posts on the internet, new media and social media, and how these can be used in Christian ministry. This article was originally posted at Sydney Anglicans

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