When kids as young as five years-old receive their first mobile devices, who better to teach them how to use the technology responsibly than their parents? It’s just one of many parenting responsibilities, like teaching healthy eating habits, good study habits and good manners. But what happens when kids begin and continue their online journeys outside of their parents’ purview or homes? It’s not uncommon now for young school-aged children to be utilizing technology this way: using a math app in the classroom, watching a video on their grandparents’ iPad or playing a game on an Xbox at a friend’s house.
The ubiquity of Internet-connected devices in a child’s life starting at younger ages and continuing as they grow has made teaching kids to be good digital citizens more paramount than ever. The two-fold question is: how do we do this, and whose job is it?
A Big Ask
Enabling whole online communities to abide by and enforce a set of well-understood social norms seems to be the best and most effective approach. But there are a couple of daunting challenges to this. First, some norms are harder to establish; it’s a tricky business when cultural, generational, and personal nuances and preferences come into play. How do we agree as a community on what is or isn’t considered private? Is it OK to post a group photo of your own kids and other people’s kids without letting the other parent(s) know you’re doing it? How do we respond to friends or family who use a social networking site as a pulpit for their political or religious ideologies? How do you handle online cruelty directed toward you or someone you know but may be in a place you don’t have easy access to (group texts, private social media posts, etc.)? These situations are not easily solved, can’t be solved by technology, and won’t be solved by writing them into rules. Only the majority of people within a community can decide where to draw the line between OK and not OK, and how to handle each.
The second challenge is that the pace at which technology has been woven into our lives has exceeded the rate by which we as a society or as communities have been able to settle on a commonly understood set of norms. A new technology sometimes throws us for a loop and allows us to behave in a way not previously available to us (take Snapchat or anything going viral on YouTube as examples). A technology or use of it bursts onto the scene overnight; however, the norms and ways in which the majority of us use it takes time to establish.
A Shared Response
Ultimately, if we want kids to be good digital citizens, it will take all of us to help them do it. This is not just a parent’s job. Communities of all sizes should take a collaborative approach to ensure that a widely accepted set of norms (and rules) are understood and in place for kids getting online for the first time or 100th time, and for those of us who’ve been here a while.
Here are my thoughts on how three important groups can take action now:
- Parents and guardians should be the ones who introduce kids to technology and create an open line of communication with their kids so that it becomes a part of every day dinner table conversation. Parents: use the devices and apps your kids use (or at least give it a try) to know how best to guide them. Be a good role model. Talk to other parents and share concerns or ask for advice. You may find other parents who have faced a similar issue already. Also, be informed about how your child’s school is introducing internet use in the classroom and how they are encouraging good digital citizenship in the classroom.
- Schools should provide guidance on appropriate technology use when they begin to use it in the classroom, but go beyond a big one-time lecture in the auditorium. Since technology is used and required at varying levels and in multiple areas of study, each grade level and each subject matter expert should consider how safe, responsible and successful use of technology can be taught and encouraged within their areas of teaching. Librarians or media literacy teachers can talk about respecting original works; health teachers can talk about appropriate use of phone cameras in healthy relationships; social studies teachers can talk about the power of social media in many recent historical events. Not an easy undertaking, but by weaving it into every area of study, kids learn about safe, responsible tech use in context and hear these messages repeatedly.
- Technology companies and everyone in their ecosystem should consider kids as potential customers/users of their products and services from the very beginning. Mobile device makers, Internet or phone service providers, apps, games, websites, and social networks should all be conscientious of this from the beginning, encourage the right behaviors by design, do all that is possible to protect them and help them if they get into trouble.
There are many more of us that can take part in building a good digital community for our kids to grow up in: law makers and law enforcement, pediatricians, journalists, sports coaches, religious leaders and anyone shaping popular culture such as the movie, television, music and fashion industries. We all have some influence over how our youngest citizens behave. If we can all begin the conversation as communities about what it means to be good digital citizens, if we enforce explicitly through our words and implicitly through our actions what good digital citizenship means and looks like, and if we keep the conversation with each other going, especially as new technologies and the ways we use them evolve, then our kids are more likely to thrive both online and off.
Lynette Owens is the founder and global director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families (ISKF) program. A mom of two school-aged children, Lynette established the ISKF program in 2008 to help extend the company’s vision of making a world safe for the exchange of digital information to the world’s youngest citizens. The program, active in 19 countries, helps kids, families, and schools become safe, responsible, and successful users of technology. Follow Lynette on Twitter @lynettetowens or read her blog: internetsafety.trendmicro.com