How old are you? Do you remember a time before the Internet. I do. And this is pretty much word for word what grownups said about kids back then:

Young kids get caught up with so many things … and try to follow these things even when they are not at all mature enough to understand it. Going through pictures, videos … etc. and knowing how adults live or talk or what are the “cool” things and then doing the same seems to be pretty much of a custom. Becoming parents before reaching the age of 16, doing drugs, using foul languages, making alcohol a grown up symbol, having sex so early, bashing society or parents, living with “It’s my life, I can do whatever I want” philosophy etc. etc. They don’t want to live with any rules it seems.

The web has certainly changed society, including young people. But you’re worrying about the same things grownups have always worried about when it comes to kids, Internet or no Internet.

Yes, the web has magnified some problems. I worry that many kids are sensually deprived. They rarely make anything with their hands. They don’t spend much time in nature. They don’t hike or climb trees.

Meanwhile, it has eased others. When I was growing up, in a small town in the 80s, me and my peers felt trapped. Like most teens, we didn’t have the perspective to know that our lives would one day be different. And any kid who was a little bit different — who was gay, “too smart,” into books or movies that his peers weren’t into, etc. — felt like he was alone in all the world.

Because the Internet didn’t exist, that teenage feeling of “no one understands me” was impossible to avoid. You couldn’t just google “Asperger’s Syndrome” or “Star Trek fandom.” You couldn’t go on Quora and ask for advice about that girl or boy you had a crush on.

So many of my high school friends dealt with their isolation by turning to drugs and sex. Or they rotted their minds by going to the mall every day (where else was there to go?) and watching hours of the crappy TV that existed back then: “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” etc. There was no HBO, no AMC. No videos to rent.  No Netflix. No iTunes.

And when a friend moved away, maybe your parents would let you make a long-distance call to him once in a while (but you had to get off the phone after a few minutes, because long distance was expensive), but you couldn’t just email or text him. And we were no longer in the “letter writing” age. Most of us didn’t know how to write letters and the idea of waiting a week for a reply was tedious.

I had a really good friend in high school. Then he moved and we lost track of each other. We found each other 30 years later on Facebook. It turned out we’re living in the same city!

I’ll start with the bad stuff first, which is basically 2 types –
1. Actively harmful / dangerous content. Pedophiles, extreme porn, bomb recipes, hate speeches, viruses, malware & spyware, and illegal content (piracy, etc) – is 1 search away at any time. In the past, there were filters to make access to this type of content more difficult for kids.
2. Time sinks. Social media obsession, games, frivolous content – these are created for the express purpose of making people spend time, which kids may be suckered into doing excessively at the expense of the rest of their lives.

The answer is, as it always was, involvement.
a. Put a good content filter like NetNanny. Keep adjusting the settings to be age-appropriate. Switch on safesearch on Google. Do this on all devices.
b. Encourage internet usage in common areas, participate in kids’ activity online (actively or passively, stepping in with clarifications when needed)
c. Be calm and rational when something inappropriate does get through, and explain why it’s harmful
d. Restrict usage to reasonable limits, just like food, tv, playtime, etc. Set some rules and explain they’re there for protection.

The internet is not contraband – locking it away just means they will access it elsewhere, unfiltered, unmonitored. Unattended. They will be free to act on what they’ve been exposed to, and you won’t even know.
The internet is far better that most media in being controllable; TV, other kids, the world in general is much more chaotic and likely to cause greater harm;
The internet is a tremendous tool for learning – skills, how-to’s, creativity, ideas, goals, knowledge – don’t let kids miss out on the chance to explore the world in a way they’ve never been able to in all of human history. It’s the biggest expansion in human development and growth since knowledge and skills could be stored outside one’s head, in the form of writing. Writing let you create the answer to anything and everything; the net now lets you find it when you need it.

Sure, there will be porn, there will be illegal downloads, there will be pointless gaming and inane chatter, and there will be dangerous ideas, despite your best efforts; but then, there always have been. You just have to make sure you’re there to guide them through the reefs.

 

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