Chris_Parrott.pngBy Chris Parrott

As the statistics on cyberbullying and sexting rise, a growing sense of alarm does as well. Parents and educators want to know, “How do we protect our kids? How can we safeguard them against the potential dangers involved in social media and Internet use?”

The truth is: nothing is 100% foolproof. Handling social media and the Internet is a lot like driving a car: risks exist (actually, are everywhere), but you can take precautions. We don’t stop riding in cars even though we know they can be deadly. Car transportation has too many benefits, and cars are an essential a part of our lives: they get us where we need to go for just about everything.

The same is true for the digital world. Just like driving a car, we can get really hurt using social media and the Internet. It’s always possible. But the risks are less when we know how to drive – when we know how to navigate the infosphere (the digital world). Yet, rarely do we “teach” how to handle social media to our kids. Rarely do we have discussions about how to use it properly and what the safety precautions are. Instead, more and more, parents and administrations are restricting access to social media out of fear for what could happen (you can’t drive the car). This is a normal human response. But it is not a response that is always in our children’s best interests.

When asked what their goals for their children are, most parents will formulate some sort of response that includes, “I want to raise a child that is happy and healthy, who can be independent and resilient, and who can contribute positively to the world.” When asked as educators what our goals are for our students, answers almost always include preparing students for the real world. When we seek to raise and educate children who can function in this world on their own, we need to recognize that handling technology is part and parcel of functioning in the present and even more so in the future. Therefore, when we opt solely for restrictive measures in an attempt to mitigate the dangers of technology use, we are not preparing children for life.

Let’s be clear, I am not suggesting that toddlers be given unlimited access to the world wide web. That would be like putting a 6 year old behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. But falling back on restrictive measures as children mature does not help them to learn the skills they need to manage digital life. Digital life is here and it’s everywhere. This means that if you overly restrict it in your home or at school, you are inadvertently reducing a child’s ability to manage technology. The whole world is not restricted. Thus when children use their phones or tablets in the other spaces outside their homes or school, they will encounter information we may not wish them to see. In these circumstances, we will rely on their past experiences to guide them through the decision making process of whether to click or not to click. When did they practice that? Oh, wait they didn’t! They never learned not to click because everything at home and school was entirely “clickable!”

Children need to learn not only how to use technology (our current focus) but how to evaluate it across a number of different dimensions:

  • Is this appropriate for me?
  • Is this a reliable source?
  • Can I respond in this community safely?
  • How much information should I divulge?
  • Can what I share be taken out of context?

These are the types of considerations children need to be making to develop strong digital skills. The best place to start asking these questions is at home and at school, and the only environments that will afford the opportunity for such questions to occur are ones where a degree of freedom is in place and where children feel safe enough to ask questions.

In addition, when we as guiding adults place tight restrictions on Internet use, subtle messages are given, “We don’t trust you” and/or “You can’t handle this tool.” When children receive the first message, they internalize it to mean, “I am not trustworthy.” As a result, they are more likely to act in ways that are not trustworthy. In the same light, when the latter message is sent, children begin to believe that they can’t handle things on their own. As a result, they become less capable beings rather than more. Witness the epidemic proportion of college students struggling to handle the independence of campus life where personal decision making is a requirement. Therefore, the next time someone panics about media use instead of knee-jerk reactions that tighten controls and limit use, take a deep breath and stay focused on the end goal: developing children with values, resilience and strong decision making skills.

To achieve that goal, we need to start spending time with our children in the digital world, at home and at school. When children are learning to drive, they are granted a permit (after a test!) and they drive under supervision. So too do children need some supervision in the the digital world. This means discussions about what to do when something “pops up” on the screen, when advertisements call for their attention, when friends forward a questionable text, when emails are ambiguous, when websites ask for personal information, etc. Make time to be with them in the “real” digital world and model what you believe to be the appropriate response. And when they make mistakes with you or on their own, recognize it as an opportunity to learn (not to be shamed). This is how we can increase their competence and thus increase the chances that their digital driving skills are up to speed.