Empowered Parents, Empowered Kids

“When I was your age I had to walk to school… uphill… in the snow… both ways!” We may have chuckled at our parents and grandparents for their archaic troubles as kids, but the cosmic wheel continues to spin, doesn’t it? Our kids are chuckling at us for having had to use rotary phones (What are those?), and listen to cassette tapes (Yes, we had to wait to rewind and fast forward), and use encyclopedias (Sorry, no Google).

My grandfather was an early adopter in his generation. He was one of the first of his contemporaries to own a personal computer and would spend hours after dinner and on weekends plotting graphs and creating rudimentary animations just for fun. I can just picture him, if he were alive today, tickled by touch screen technology and amazed at the amount of computer power we have in gadgets that fit in our pockets… that are also phones/cameras/video recorders!

When we were kids, our parents did not have to have guidelines for how we were to use all the technology that… didn’t exist yet! So now that my own kids are in their tweens, I’m discovering that I’m a first-generation-parent-of-digital-natives and need a whole new set of tools. I need resources to keep my kids safe on the Internet. Fortunately, there’s… the Internet. Oh, the irony!

Seriously though, technology and the way kids (and people) are using it changes at lightning speed and if we were to wait for a book (gasp!), it would be outdated… well, yesterday.Take, for example, this issue of online safety. Although the issue of adult online predators should not be minimized, The Internet Safety Technical Task Force concluded in 2009 that the more prevalent danger occurs among kids themselves. bullying and harassment — with technology serving as megaphones in the hands of our children. So how do we, as powered parents, empower our kids to become responsible, mindful, compassionate digital citizens? This is what I want to know… as my kids add tablets and credits for their favorite online social games to their wish lists for the holidays.Helping our youth shape and take responsibility for their online communities is ultimately, the most effective and lasting way to contribute to their online safety. So what are the things that they need to know about “the net?”

According to Danah Boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research four properties of online social platforms dramatically impact the effect of our actions: persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability. Yes, the Internet is a powerful space in which people who may not know better or don’t have the advantage of much hindsight yet, i.e., our tweens and teens and even some of our peers, can spread information from any one online place to another online place, all of it being permanent and searchable with high potential visibility well beyond their intended audience.

Not only that but Dana also addresses the additional dynamics of invisible audiences, collapsed context and the blurring of public and private in her dissertation titled, “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics” and how these factors make it difficult for anyone to fully understand who “is present” in the virtual room and who they are actually and ultimately sharing their information with. So what can responsible parents do, in a world where we are really learning alongside our kids about the ramifications of these dynamics?

My mom likes to remind me that the same principles of parenting still apply, it’s just the tools that have changed. We teach our kids to swim so they can have fun and stay safe in the a pool or in the ocean. Come to think of it, the rules for water safety can also be applied to online safety. We start them young, in the shallow end, supervised. We outline the rules and reinforce them again, and again, and again. I did not throw my kids in the deep end of the pool. I have no intention of throwing them online at the age of thirteen or sixteen, without creating opportunities for them to learn, little by little, along the way.

My kids first dipped their toes in with age-appropriate social games like Build-A-Bear’s Bearville and Fairytopia, where their interactions with fellow gamers were limited to “Hi!” “Hi!” Just this year, they have been given their own email addresses. A friend of mine created a contract for email use that was helpful for me with my kids. It served, not only to outline the rules clearly and explicitly, but to open up a conversation about different scenarios or situations that they should be mindful of. I’m sharing my contract here as well as the one for cell phone use.

There are a number of contracts readily available online (Again, ha!) for internet usage and safety. There are also a number of fabulous websites that offer resources and advice for parents, including ConnectSafely.org and SafeKids.com.

Sooner or later (Trust me, it’ll feel like sooner), our kids will leave the nest and venture into the wide world, and the world-wide web. Know that how we guide them, will not only serve them well in the years to come but will be a model for how they guide their own children into a future we cannot even dream.

A big thanks to Energizer for sponsoring this campaign. Click here to see more of the discussion.

Ria blogs as Practical Mommy here. Tweets here and Pins here.

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