By John Lloyd
“The Internet’s not written in pencil, it’s written in pen.” So said Merve Lapus, a Senior Education Program Manager for Common Sense Media and father of two young daughters. Addressing a group of 100 dads at Parents in Action’s signature “Fathers Only” event at the Hewitt School, Merve gave the audience some great perspectives on how to help their children navigate the barrage of media and technology to which they’re exposed daily.
Paula Barry, the New York head of Common Sense Media, introduced Merve. The theme – “From Digital Kids to Digital Citizens” – presented with the cooperation of Common Sense Media, offered something for everyone in an audience evenly distributed between lower, middle, and high school fathers. You may know CSM through their website, www.commonsense.org, which contains 21,000+ expert reviews of movies, TV shows, games, books, and websites, with age-specific ratings for every age from toddler to teenager. CSM strives to “rate, educate, and advocate” by providing tools to parents and educators.
PIA board member Chris Theodorus and PIA facilitator Kenneth Creed kicked things off. They spoke about the growing number of male participants in PIA and how rewarding it has been for them. As Kenny put it, “Children notice when their dads are involved.”
As a CSM educator and engaged father, Merve has spent the past decade enlightening educators and parents about the digital world’s great opportunities and risks. His particular focus is empowering children and helping to reduce incidents of bullying. While he didn’t shy away from the scary stuff (he laid out some unnerving statistics and anecdotes), he also noted the advantages of being a digital citizen and a “21st century learner,” with access to a wealth of diverse perspectives and resources.
We as parents need to teach our children “how to harness the power of technology safely, respectfully, and responsibly,” said Merve. “You’re the parent,” he added, even if you don’t understand everything your child is doing with today’s media. He stressed that kids always have and always will make questionable decisions, but some aspects of technology mean that the consequences can now be longer lasting – pen vs. pencil.
Other key points mentioned:
– Kids tend to “age up” in what they want to watch. Lower schoolers want to watch middle schoolers, middle schoolers want to watch high schoolers, and high schoolers want to watch those older than themselves. This makes it more likely that children will stumble upon age- inappropriate content.
– Kids, like adults, experience the “dis-inhibition effect” of being anonymous online. They will read and perhaps write things on the web that no reasonable person would ever say to someone face to face.
– Kids can experience an “emotional devastation.” This may feel over-dramatic to an adult, as grown-ups have enough experience to know that tough times will pass. As parents we must acknowledge our children’s limited perspective and refrain from dismissing the severity of their feelings. We want them to come to us when something does go wrong.
Merve also presented some unnerving statistics:
Overload – The average US child spends 53 hours a week with media and technology, and the average teenager sends and receives over 3,400 texts per month
Bullying – 1 in 3 kids ages 10-18 are cyber-bullied, but only 1 in 10 tell an adult. 90% of kids aged 12-17 have witnessed cyber-bullying.
Early Exposure – There are 5 million Facebook users under the age of 10. More than half had help setting up their account from a family member (such as an older sibling). 38% of children under the age of two have used a mobile device for media.
Reputational Damage – 31% of college admissions officers search for applicants on the web and/ or look at their Facebook profiles, a number that is growing every year. Websites such as “The Wayback Machine” archive snapshots of the Internet, making it harder to delete embarrassing content.
Sites that promote or encourage negative behaviors: Some of the scariest sites out there celebrate questionable or dangerous behaviors. Myproana – a “pro-anorexia” site – celebrates the disease as an accomplishment of self-control. Parents should know about sites like these and know where their children spend their time on the Internet.
To end on a positive note, as Merve did, we should appreciate that today’s young people have access to information and tools that are far beyond anything we grew up with. They can access the world’s collective knowledge anywhere and anytime, and the opportunities for connecting and collaborating are greater than ever. Said Merve, “Kids will never learn to swim if we don’t let them in the water.”
You can help your children cultivate a positive digital footprint by engaging with them, by sharing your values, and by setting and enforcing rules. You are the parent. You can also help by teaching them about privacy settings, legal issues, and how to avoid risky situations. If you don’t know as much about these topics as you would like, you can find out more at www.commonsense.org.