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Keeping our Children safer online

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The cybersafety discussion is more important today than it has ever been. Not simply because of the scare stories that are emerging with ever-increasing frequency, but more so because, (i) children are changing their use of the Internet; and (ii) their parents are evidently not taking responsibility for the implications that arise from that use.

New data arising from studies very recently conducted in the UK and Australia tell us that 57% of parents are not aware how to keep their children safe online, what actions to take to minimise potential adverse impacts on their children's well-being or even what to do at times of crisis. We also know from recent work, that children are rapidly increasing their use of the Internet - up from just over 7 hours a week in 2005 to almost 14 hours a week in 2007. A doubling in just 24 months. Add to this children's growing use of mobile devices to access the internet, a trend that will only increase with the proliferation of inexpensive mobile Internet platforms, including Apple's iPhone and of course games consuls that double as wireless Internet browsers - the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS in particular. But of more importance than anything else in these trends, is the explosion amongst children of social networking - the use of the Internet to communicate, to connect and to create, annotate and share their own content -video, articles, images, photographs, and personal profile data.

So, what actions can we take to protect our children in this rapidly changing online world?

Well, clearly we need to focus more on parents - for the last 18 months or so, we have seen cybersafety advocates delivering solid advice to teachers and to children themselves, almost always in schools. Not always well-researched advice (as we haven't had much solid research in these areas until recently) but nonetheless, advice mostly based on principles of good online citizenship.

But the same advocates have overlooked what we now know to be the most important component of any cybersafety solution - the parents. To date children's Internet usage has been thought to occur predominately in schools; and schools have been seen to be where kids do most of their learning. But on both counts, this is proving to be a fallacy. Children today are much more likely today to access the Internet from home, a friend's house or a public place (such as a library) than they are at school. And of course, children are spending more time learning outside school than they ever used to - informally, and by virtue of the Internet and computer technologies.

More than this, our cybersafety advocates have traditionally worked 'from the outside in' - that is, using the horror stories that emerge from time to time to scare children and teachers into following responsible behaviours online, using the same shock tactics that inform our anti-smoking and binge drinking campaigns. But of course this strategy rarely works - children are risk takers and whilst some kids take more risks than others, basic child psychology (now supported by more recent physiological studies of the brain), tells us that children, especially younger children, are not well equipped to understand or act on the implications of these risks. They might understand and recite the messages we tell them but rarely does this have much impact on their everyday behaviours.

It is in this context that I have got together with TelstraClear to produce five simple strategies for parents, all based on the most recent research; and correspondingly, five simple steps they, as parents, can impart to their children so they can keep themselves safer online.

Dr Martyn Wild

Copyright (c) Martyn Wild - Available to use as is with permission from the author.


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