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Moving Beyond Internet Safety

When we focus exclusively on "online safety", we miss the opportunity to teach our children digital culture, etiquette, and citizenship.

Today, much of our social interaction is happening online. Once derided as "not real", online social interaction is now pervasive and mainstream. Because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, social networking sites are open to children 13 and older. This includes facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Google plus. Popular specialty sites like Poptropica and Zhu Zhu Pets are open to younger children, and offer the chance to interact socially online in the course of game play.

As they have evolved, online interactions have grown in complexity, with each social network having its own cultural norms and expectations. For a child with social awkwardness, there can be just as many pitfalls and risk of failure as there are new possibilities and opportunities. For example Path suggests that you connect with "only the people you would invite to a dinner party", while Facebook invites you to "share with the world" and twitter is public by default. Increasingly, the lines and boundaries defining the niche of each distinct network blend and shift, but that is all the more reason to remain engaged and up to date.

It is important to avoid the impulse to dive in with both feet to a new network, and instead, watch to absorb and master the preferred ways of connecting and interacting. You can do this with your child. Imagine that you have moved to a new place and you are closely watching your neighbors and listening to their conversations.  In this new culture, how do they initiate a friendship? How often is it okay to call or visit? Where is the line between "oversharing" and "openness"? While much research and punditry is focused on internet "safety" for children, I believe that it is important to help kids to engage in the new "eighth continent" of the internet, and instead of policing the technology, support positive behaviors. Focus on making them compentent internet citizens, able to engage and connect successfully.

Here are some good online resources to immerse yourself in digital culture:

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jim G. February 21, 2012 at 03:18 PM
Safety and etiquette is not only a concern for children - a vast number of adults are newcomers or relative novices in online discussion and socializing and have no idea how "exposed" they can be. I have shocked clients to their shoetops by assembling detailed portraits of them, their personal information and their families (including pictures, birth dates, photos and schools) using solely information they have posted on public, social sites, cross-referenced with other publicly accessible records. My purpose in doing so is positive; perhaps many internet users are benign. But those same postings and records are available to every single person on earth with a browser, and I doubt all 5-6 billion of them are kindly souls. We've all read stories of innocent 20-somethings bollixing job opportunities or employment by posting idiotic things on their social pages; adults (and children) need to understand that "public" out here means really, really public... and permanent, and endlessly searchable.
Aaron Weintraub February 21, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Thank you Jim. I agree that safety is important. Thank you also for the reminder to be mindful of the online trail that we leave behind.
Diane Clokey February 22, 2012 at 02:40 PM
I like the idea of broadening the conversation and reinforcing civil discourse and positive interactions. I think it's difficult, especially for parents, to get beyond the fear and figure out how to help this generation navigate these realities successfully, with self-awareness and, frankly, a little class.
Jim G. February 23, 2012 at 01:56 PM
_The Daily You_ isn't bad, but it stops way short of the essential mark - it takes as a given that some level of advertising, individualized marketing, targeting etc. is okay; as most books on the topic do, any such level of the immediate past is okay, and only the changes of the last few years is new and terrifying and bad. A moment's thought shows the progression of such uber-sales efforts. To take it right to bare metal instead of back a layer of paint, you have to go to the visionaries like Greyfriars (www.RenegadeConsumer.com). Be warned; it's a one-way journey. Like learning how a magic trick is done, you can never "un-see" how the system uses you.
Jim G. February 23, 2012 at 02:14 PM
To try and bring this back to topic - although I think the digression was necessary - I've watched new users explore the online world for a long time. It's like any other new activity - a period of timidity, followed by a breakthrough of understanding or mastery, which (for many people) leads to a sudden burst of overconfidence, which often leads to a disaster. Fortunately most such 'disasters' are small-scale and easily fixed... but not always. Both kids new to the online world and adults who are either new to online in general or new to a different area of the online world (which may not have existed 15 days, or 15 minutes before) follow this pattern: they don't understand it at all, then they think they understand it all, then they find out they only understand a fraction of it. It's important for adults to go slowly in a new 'arena' and not make mistakes of either safety or etiquette; it's more important for parents to supervise their kids' use of the net and school them not only in safety, but in acceptable behavior. It's easy to feel safe and anonymous and protected, moreso for kids than adults... and from that kitten-with-its-head-under-the-blanket position it's easy to overreach and wind up either dangerously exposed, or having offended the community you're trying to participate in, or - worst of all, especially for kids in social networks - having deeply hurt or offended someone far more than may have been intended or understood. Parents need to stay aware.

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