Kids and the Internet - it's a good thing

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We read a lot of alarmist commentary about the dangers of the Internet for youngsters. How it puts kids at risk, erodes social skills, lays traps for the unwary and innocent, and contributes to the long slow spiral into illiteracy.

I'm the first to admit that there are risks involved with letting kids online. In raising two children, I've had to face and circumvent the pitfalls - strangers attempting contact, enticing popups, too-good-to-be-true downloads, casino-like games. I've had to aggressively impose safeguards for my own peace of mind.

Yet, from what I've seen, the educational benefits of online access are worth it. Yes, parents have to be vigilant. But the opportunities for communication and self-expression the Internet provides are bringing benefits to everyone - especially children.

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A 2002 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project details how the Internet gives kids access to information in ways prior generations couldn't even have imagined. At the click of a mouse, students can find the most up-to-date research for projects, seamlessly connect with study partners, share sites rich in subject matter, and find online tutors and study groups. The Internet is a virtual reference library, a 24/7 guidance counselor, and the most portable locker, backpack, and notebook imaginable.

Despite reports to the contrary, computer use doesn't have to be isolating. Our computer is in the family TV room, where my daughter has been known to converse with the family and laugh along with the TV even as she's instant messaging with friends, getting math help, researching a paper, and listening to music. My son is more than willing to have me share in his online gaming exploits. Sitting at the couch while he's achieving some new quest enables me to be his one-woman cheering section.

Like any privilege, computers can be a lesson in responsibility. Before gaining access to the computer at age 13, my children had to sign a computer contract of appropriate online behavior (see box below). They learned early that Internet privileges stem from whether I (the bill-paying head-of-household) think that they (the eager self-expressive socializers) have a full grasp of the issues. The contract was a first step in proving their understanding of what was at stake.

I also taught them that I'm using the computer for family record-keeping. When my kids realized they could harm the family with naive downloading or unguarded instant messaging, they more readily accepted that it's my responsibility to determine how the computer is used. This argument had more impact on them than cautioning about predators did.

My daughter discovered online journals, or "blogs," when she was 16. After a lot of negotiating, she was allowed to start her blog on www.xanga.com Her "xanga" had to be accessible by me. She couldn't post her real name, photos of herself, or her location, and I encouraged her to warn her friends not to either. But in keeping an eye on her xanga, I also had access to her friends' xangas. Surprise - this opened me up to a whole new world of insight into today's teenager. These kids can write.

To keep a blog going, you have to have the discipline to write daily. This puts today's young bloggers on the fast track to future Pulitzers. To keep your friends coming back, you have to be interesting, funny, intelligent, relevant. These kids are all that and more. Once I got past the immature spelling and punctuation (along with usual teen slang and vulgarity), I was treated to some of the best poetry I've ever read. All of their blogs together are a veritable anthropological study of high school life. One senior I know has, in four years, transformed from what seemed like functional illiteracy - incomplete sentences, poor spelling - into a blossoming philosopher headed for a major university.

Aside from the keyboard and multitasking skills they've developed, the substance of what they're writing is way beyond what mine was at that age. Sure, their mechanics might be rough at first, but over time that rights itself. What's more important is they've got something to say, and the Internet gives them the means to say it. Don't be surprised if the rising generation of Internet users turn out to be the most articulate and best-informed generation in recent history.

Our family's dance with the Internet has taken some turns and dips, but I'm glad I put the effort into learning the steps. What my kids and their friends have gained will serve them well.

Laura Matthews is a freelance writer and editor and single mom of two.

Matthews Family Computer Guidelines

UP TO AGE 13

OK to:

• E-mail with parent-approved friends and family

• Surf online through a service provider with parental controls

Not OK to:

• E-mail with unknown people

• Instant message

• Download programs or documents

• Open attachments

• Send, receive, or post photos

• Participate in online gaming

AGE 13 TO 16

All of age 13 OKs plus OK to:

• Instant message with parent-approved screennames

• Play online games at parent-approved sites

• Download documents from known people

Not OK To:

• Communicate with unknown people

• Download programs

• Go online past 10 p.m.

OVER AGE 16

All of previous OKs plus OK to:

• Blog (if accessible by Mom)

• Go online without parental controls

• Instant message with connections made through friends

• Download programs with prior parental consultation

• Send and receive photos & documents

• Have multiple e-mail addresses and screen names

• Access computer anytime

Not OK to:

• Share personal identifiable information online

• Post photos online

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