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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Kids and the Internet: Less fear, more guidance

In many ways, last week's third annual Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) conference in Washington, D.C. was a groundbreaking event. Except in this case, it was notable not for something it did but rather for something it didn't do. It didn't spread fear.

When these kind of gatherings first took place just a couple of years ago, the Internet and the tech companies were on the defensive. All the discussion was about widespread pornography and the possibility of chance encounters with sexual predators. Most sessions focused on keeping our kids away from the computer or setting up spyware, so we knew exactly what they were up to.

Now, reality has set in. Technology and the Internet are so much a part of our children's lives that most people have stopped trying to turn back the tide. Instead, we are focusing on doing everything we can to make sure they are good swimmers!

The theme of the conference, "Building a Culture of Responsibility: From Online Safety to Digital Citizenship", set the tone. Speaker after speaker took the thoroughly refreshing view that our kids are not just potential victims of online crimes but are better characterized as participants in a global digital community. As such, parents need to encourage media literacy and responsible behavior, rather than focusing solely on the dangers.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be worried about online safety, but research has shown that the chances of a tween or teen being sexually abused by someone they met over the Internet are extremely low. When kids are harassed online, the culprit is far more likely to be a fellow tween or teen indulging in some kind of cyber bullying. Hence the emphasis on encouraging ethical and self-protective behavior.

Some of the discussion at the conference centered around how smart most kids are when it comes to mastering the physically use of technology, but how the emotional maturity of the average teen is still pretty much the same as it's always been. And that's where the problem lies. Put web-enabled cameras in the hands of immature teens and they are likely to do things they will later regret.

Another discussion point was that all kids are different. Most kids are fairly savvy about keeping themselves safe and will interact with their friends online much like they do offline. Others are natural risk takers and are just as likely to take those risks online. Understanding where your child falls on the "risk curve" is the key to providing the help and guidance that they need.

Thankfully, we are moving towards a time when we can regard technology and the Internet as just another part of a child's learning experience, much like they learn how to get along with school friends, go away to camp, or learn to drive a car. If we give them sufficient guidance along the way, then hopefully a responsible digital citizen will be the end result!                 

Comment by Paul Ranheim, posted 11/16/2009, 4:04 PM:

Great Article - Education on using technology safely is vital. Even though the odds of a tween or teen being sexually abused by someone they've met over the Internet are extremely low, parents should still take advantage of technology to help them keep their kids safe. Much like using bike helmets on kids even though the odds of them falling off are low.
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