After a long day of work, it’s not uncommon for Andrea Brown to return home and find her daughters, ages 14 and16, on the computer. In her household, online surfing beats TV channel surfing and even hanging out with friends.
“Finding a way to peel Ashley or Katherine away from the computer, whether it’s for homework or even dinner, has become a dreadful daily routine,” Brown confesses. As a high school teacher, Brown sees the potential usefulness of the Internet as an educational tool, but as a mom she second-guesses her decision for a home Internet connection.
“I wanted to provide the kids with the latest in technology to improve their performance in school,” she says, “but of course, there’s a danger when you can’t monitor their online use because you’re at work”.
According to research by the Media Awareness Network (MNet), a Canadian non-profit organization providing media education to parents and young people, Brown’s situation is far from uncommon. Fifty percent of kids admit they’re alone most of the time when online and only 16 percent talk to their parents about what they do online.
For teens living in the new age of technology, being “hip” means being “connected.” And being connected doesn’t necessarily involve one’s parents.
“When I’m on the Net, that’s my private time,” says 14-year-old Ashley. “I don’t want my mom breathing down my neck.”
Being stuck outside the loop is tough on parents, however, especially when teens are the most vulnerable group of Internet users.
Fifty percent of kids admit they’re alone most of the time when online and only 16 percent talk to their parents about what they do online.
Just as driving involves risks, so does surfing online if not properly skilled or aware of the potential dangers. Communicating through chat rooms, instant messenger or e-mail leaves a user open to possible harassment, abuse and exposure to inappropriate content.
Over half of Canadian kids, for example, say they’ve accidentally ended up on an adult pornography site simply by mistyping a URL, clicking on a link or using a search engine. MNet further reports that nearly two in every ten young Canadians have received a frightening or alarming e-mail message from someone they didn’t know.
Trusting teens are a lucrative market, not just for online bullies or predators, but also for commercial sites—many of which gain valuable personal insight through online contests, games, Web forums and promotions.
In a US study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, an unsettling number of young people said it was OK to reveal sensitive family information on the Web when enticed with the offer of a free gift. Interestingly, teens (ages 13 to 17) were more likely than younger kids (ages 10 to 12) to volunteer such private facts.
Yet since anyone can post information, the Internet serves neither as a trustworthy nor dependable source. Still, research shows that 36 percent of kids think “most of the information” on the Net is reliable*. It’s time to change their minds.
Developing Web awareness is a skill some parents might take time to master, but it’s one that will benefit their teens.
“Parents and teachers need to take more responsibility for teaching kids how to make better, more informed decisions when using the Internet,” says Dr. David Kaufman, professor and director at the Learning and Instructional Development Centre at Simon Fraser University.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Create family rules for Internet use
- Compile a list of teen-friendly sites and search engines
- Talk to your teens about the sites and chat rooms they visit
- Know who they are chatting with online
- Meet whoever they agree to meet—Always (or make it a rule that online friends remain online)
- Keep your home computer in a visible area, where you can monitor frequency of use and site visitation
- Install filters that restrict access to sexually explicit and adult-oriented sites
- Teach teens not to give out personal information or to download files without your consent
- Inform teens of their online safety rights (visit icra.org)
- Report abuse or harassment immediately (visit cybertip.ca).
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Despite the risks, Internet use has its benefits—especially for teens. As Dr. David Kaufman, a professor at Simon Fraser University says, “The Internet allows youths to develop skills such as problem solving, decision making and collaboration through games.”
Then, there are always the social advantages. According to Environics Canada’s survey, Young Canadians In A Wired World: The Students’ View (2001), 36 percent of students, aged 9 to 17, cited communication and meeting new friends as the top benefit of the Net.
Parents weren’t far behind in their thinking. One in ten of those interviewed in The Parents’ View identified the interactive nature of the Net as beneficial, but most believed the time their kids spent online was primarily devoted to homework and education. Not so according to the kids, who prefer downloading music (57%), playing games (48%) and instant messaging (40%).
But regardless of any discrepancies, parents and kids agree on one thing: the Internet benefits far outweigh the potential negative consequences.
Did you Know?
- Ninety-nine percent of Canadian kids have used the Internet. Eight in ten access it from home, and five in ten use it every day.
- Two-thirds of Canadian kids (68%) say their parents never sit with them while they surf; never use filters to block unsuitable sites (65%); and never check to see what sites they’ve visited (54%).
(Source: Young Canadians In A Wired World Survey, Media Awareness Network, 2001).