Friday, June 12, 2009

The Dangers of the Internet

I'm watching an episode of Oprah, an episode in which Oprah is warning parents about the dangers of the Internet, namely in terms of young teenagers who are abducted by strangers. It's an absolute danger that has been around since I first started playing around with chat rooms and social networking sites, maybe 15 years ago at this point. I was a teenager in high school, and knew more about the Internet than my parents; I made a lot of friends online and was regularly going to conventions. My mother was especially nervous, password-protecting her computer so I couldn't get online, and regularly showing me articles or telling me stories about the dangers of the Internet, but I brushed off these warnings, partly because I was a teenager, but also partly because I was tired of so consistently hearing about all the dangerous people in the world. My parents were especially nervous because although they used the Internet themselves, they had no real experience with the Internet prior to my using it as extensively or easily.

The argument I still hear from many adults whose teenagers and children use the Internet is that they're concerned with the possibility of their children getting hurt. And the stories of child abduction and sexual abuse are absolutely horrible. "Safety" is a big buzzword; adults are encouraged to keep their kids off social networking sites; they're advised to keep their computers in living rooms or kitchens (which actually I think is not a bad idea). But what I don't see these parents doing is talking to their kids about acceptable behaviors of people online, mostly because I don't think they consider anything other than the danger.

In all the interaction I've had with kids in my limited experiences in teaching, the younger the kids are, the more likely they are to share everything with you because they have the experience that everyone is interested in what's going on. As a teacher, I really enjoyed this because I'm interested in my students' lives and how I can help them become more intelligent adults. The older the students get, though - and the older we get as adults - the less likely we are to tell everyone everything; we become more selective and cautious. In real life and in person, kids have to be taught not to tell everyone everything, not only because is it not always appropriate, but because you have to learn how to judge the situations in which information is applicable. So, then, why aren't kids being taught what's appropriate to discuss online? The default answer is to not tell anyone anything online, but that's not really a good answer either because kids have a natural tendency towards chattiness and openness.

I believe the better way to teach kids to differentiate between dangerous people and those who aren't is to discuss the behaviors that are applicable to different online situations; how to differentiate between someone who's just being casually chatty; what information can safely be shared vs. what information should not be shared; and when it's all right to begin to open up more. There's always the chance that someone isn't who he says he is online, but that's also just as true if relationships are developed in person. Kids need to be taught how to respond to different people in different situations in person, as they now also need to be taught online, but only warning of the danger is one-sided, and it frustrates me to see adults who have little experience with the online social world immediately and only react out of fear instead of using this as a means of exploring interpersonal relationships and how to distinguish acceptable behaviors.

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