Understanding the internet: Parents need perspective
Dear Santa, I would like an iPad and cellphone this Christmas. Love Johnny, age 6.
Are you nervous about the effect these new technologies will have on your children?
Lisa Read offers some perspective on introducing these devices into your home. Read is the Information Technology teacher at Mount Prevost Middle School and with two teenagers of her own, this is a topic she knows well.
Read said parents feel uncertain about computers and the internet because they didn't use these tools in their youth. As such, they don't have a clear idea about how and when to let their children use it.
"It's all about context. When I was a kid there was weed, alcohol, sneaking into movies so I have context to set rules. Parents don't have the experience of using social media as a teenager in the way they do understand experiences with like music, clothing styles, dating, etc."
When Read's children were young, the family computer was in the kitchen. They didn't have computers in their bedrooms. If they accessed the internet, someone was most likely watching. Read doesn't believe parental controls are the answer to restricting a child from accessing inappropriate material. She said it is a learning opportunity.
"I think it's a false sense of security and any kid worth his salt will figure out the workaround. It doesn't encourage the parent to know and understand what's going on. When my kids would find something inappropriate it would be no different to them watching something R-rated on TV or reading an inappropriate magazine at a friend's house. Kids will look for the information, then you have the conversation."
Read said parents need to understand how to use the internet and why kids are attracted to social media. She said there is a good side to the internet, contrary to that which is often depicted in the news — the stories of cyber bullying and predators. Being informed will help parents decide how to use computers and internet in their home.
"If you don't sit down as a parent and understand the culture around the internet you will only be guiding them through fear. Parents need to find a way to inform themselves to what's going on. That might mean those painful hours of sitting through Webkins and Club Penguin, and other things that might not appeal to adults."
Social media is another level of interaction that can concern parents. Read said social media plays an important role in a teenager's social life.
"We all know how important socializing is for teenagers. When I was a teenager it was talking on the phone for hours and hours. Now it's texting and tweeting or updating Facebook. Kids these days don't differentiate between virtual friends and face-to-face friends. They just have friends. That connection is huge for them."
Read said like curfews, staying up late, and deciding what movies your child is allowed to watch, rules around computer use should honour your values as a parent. And, like the rest, these rules should change as your child grows up.
"It has to change. There are different rules according to age. For young children, the computer should be in a main traffic area, not in their bedroom. It's also easy enough to turn off Wifi at, say, 10 p.m., if you feel older kids and their devices need more structure."
Read encourages parents and teachers to teach kids how to be discerning consumers.
"It's the process of being a critical thinker, understanding the difference of hype and content. So even if the parent isn't tech-savvy, they can still help children understand right from wrong, truth from fiction."