Andy Wong/AP
Children deserve more respect when it comes to online safety. Trust and open communication from parents is key to digital literacy. Here, a Chinese woman takes a nap while her child plays on a tablet computer at a resting point near the Great Wall of China at Badaling, north of Beijing on June 2, 2012.

Kids' online safety: the key is trust and open dialogue, not fear

Kids' safety online is most impacted by open communication and trust with their parents. However, parents are often fearful and confused because of the mixed messages they receive from the media.

Thankfully, the youth part of “Talking to Youth and Parents about Life Online” had a whole lot of good news in it because my heart sank when I read this first paragraph on parents’ views in this recent study from Canada’s premier digital and media literacy organization:

“The parents we spoke with were beleaguered by fear of danger and exhausted from the burden of constant vigilance. Although the exact nature of that danger is poorly defined, many parents told us that surveillance is now equated with good parenting, and that the days of trusting their children and providing them with space to explore the world and make mistakes are long gone.”

I asked MediaSmarts’s co-director Jane Talimm about that finding, and she emailed me that “this was consistent with almost all of the parents in our focus groups – we were actually surprised at the intensity of emotion many expressed in this regard – and as we know, this runs counter to the mutual trust, confidence and communication between parents and their kids that is so essential to helping them develop the skills they need for digital life.”

This is where Internet-safety messaging – amplified by the news media – has gotten us. Parents not only feeling beleaguered, fearful, and exhausted but, worse, feeling they can’t trust their children. Can the net result of that somehow increase our children’s safety?

Is it as clear to you as it is to me that we need to turn this Internet-safety ship around? Our children deserve better – for one thing, more respect.

Prominent sociologists Karen Fingerman and Frank Furstenberg made several related points in a recent New York Times article, saying:

  • Parents and kids are closer than ever
  • We’ve largely closed the generation gap so widely lamented 40 years ago
  • “We could be celebrating the strong bonds between today’s young people and their parents rather than lamenting the foibles of the next generation” and
  • “Technological and economic developments have contributed to this shift.”

Tech developments have contributed to what keeps kids safer than anything: the self-respect and resilience that come from love, communication, and respect.

So we’ve moved from one kind of gap to another: the gap between reality – how our children are living their lives from day to day, including what’s reflected and expressed of them in social media – and more than 15 years of exaggerated claims and misrepresentations of Internet risk.

How to bridge this new gap?

Two simple things for starters: Listen to our own kids more and look at the data. For example, just go to p. 6 of MediaSmarts’s executive summary about “What Young People Get Out of Networked Technologies.” Take scary commentaries and news reports we hear to our kids, analyze them together, and test the claims against our kids’ own practices and privacy settings. Fold those claims into the conversation and listen to our kids’ responses. If negative experiences emerge, develop strategies together for dealing with them – that calm, loving support from their parents is powerful.

I truly believe we’ll not only find comfort and mutual respect in the process, we’ll feel a whole lot less reason to be scared, beleaguered and distrustful.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

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