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Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Preparing the Next Generation for Ethical and Safe Online Engagement


The Internet has arguably taken over our lives. In as little as 25 years, the magnitude of its impact and influence on the way our society interacts with technology, money, people and businesses is astonishing to say the least.

A Pew Research study released earlier this year reveals that more than 87 percent of American adults use some form of the Internet, whether through email, their mobile device or directly from their computers. Children aren’t trailing too far behind these statistics, and it won’t be long before they’re outwitting us in the digital space.

If we thought that we were a generation of highly-adept, technologically-savvy Internet-dominating adults, think again.

Increasingly, children are becoming the top purveyors of new media. Common Sense Media's fall 2013 report, Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, found that more than half (52 percent) of children ages 0 to 8 now have access to newer mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, and 53 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds have used a computer.

Forty-seven percent of American teenagers are reported to own a smartphone that often serves as a primary Internet access point across socioeconomic status.

With the omnipresence of the Internet, parents must be increasingly aware and armed with the tools to keep their children safe online.

I spoke with Rebecca Randall, vice president of education programs at Common Sense Media — a partner of Symantec security systems — to get her thoughts and tips on how parents can prepare and protect their digitally-connected kids.

Common Sense Media is armed with the mission of providing parents, educators, health organizations and policymakers with reliable, independent data on children’s use of media and technology and the impact it has on their physical, emotional, social and intellectual development.

Randall advises that parents approach the Internet participation conversation with their children by first understanding their responsibility to provide explicit guidelines and open-space dialogue to help kids differentiate what is and isn’t acceptable for them to access or participate in online.

“We need to be able to guide kids around positive online engagement instead of pointing the finger at bad behavior,” Randall explained. “Providing parameters helps them build a positive reputation.”

Reinforcing positive digital citizenship and literacy can help kids think responsibly and critically -- and help them to recognize predatory behavior and know the boundaries of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. For instance, reminding kids to never share their private information such as addresses and phone numbers might seem like a no-brainer but can open the conversation about what else might be considered unacceptable online as kids and teens build their online reputation.

When it comes to privacy protections online -- allowing apps to post on social networks on your behalf or allowing apps to map your location -- Randall raises that terms and conditions for adults and teens alike is cumbersome.

“We need to help young people understand the various ways companies are extracting data. Company data tracking and collection isn’t something teens are inherently aware of,” says Randall, who also mentioned that Common Sense Media is working with Congress on legislative policies to require that companies write terms and conditions in language that people can actually understand.

Best practices for parents include having their teens configure their settings to opt out of location sharing and limit app posting capabilities.

Parents should also think about how their child’s school will play a role in engaging students and families in these topics. “Particularly as schools integrate more technologies in the classroom they need to have skills necessary to engage ethically,” Randall says.

Image Source/Flickr

Sherrell Dorsey headshotSherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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