Sunday, May 03, 2009

Phones, streets and mail not safe for children

That's my reaction to the Privacy Commissioner's absurd declaration that the "internet is not safe for children".

What is?

Travel? Talking to people on the phone? Sending letters? Talking to neighbours? Relatives? Playing sports? Climbing trees? Swimming pools? Playing in the streets?

It really becomes a matter of applying your mind to the situation, and when children are involved, an appropriate amount of supervision. Smart kids manage risk, and smart adults know the extent and degree of keeping an eye on their kids.

In the scheme of things, the internet isn't dangerous. Physically it does nothing at all other than facilitate information and conversation. Of course if you let your kids take photos and send them without permission it becomes a little riskier. If your kids seek attention from strangers then maybe it is because they can't talk to you about certain things, or they are from a home lacking a parent. As much attention should be paid to those who seek out inappropriate attention, as those who respond to it.

Meeting people you only know from the internet is risky, just as risky as pen pals once were i bet, just easier. Simple rules around never meeting people without someone else present, who is an adult, is key.

This issues comes up perenially, this time because a man was luring underage girls to talk about sex with him online. He of course is now paying a price for that, the law is strict and is in itself a deterrent. However, the internet for many kids is probably far less risky than Uncle Tom, or Cousin Jed, especially if you leave them alone, they are alcoholic, and you as parents spend large amounts of time partying, or being absent. Risks need to be in perspective. The bigger risk comes from meeting people you don't know who might abuse you. These people are often brought in by adults as friends, or partners.

However, all that gets the attention of law enforcement on the internet is not the result of adults. You see the truth is that censorship laws are producing some new perverse results - according to Wired thanks to camera phones and web cams, teenagers (they aren't children and not adults) are now being prosecuted for producing child pornography. Why? Because they take photos of themselves and send them on. In one ridiculous case a teenage couple have been prosecuted because they filmed themselves having sex, and sent it to no one.

The internet is presenting new challenges to parenting, it also means taking a realistic approach to what young people do. It is more an opportunity than a risk. It offers unparalleled access to information and entertainment. It makes it far easier for young people who feel isolated and alone to explore the world, and learn about themselves and others. In short it offers far more good than bad.

Children shouldn't be exploring the internet unsupervised, but as they get older they should be allowed more and more freedom. They will talk to friends online, they may make new ones, and yes, some will explore sexuality - like they have for time immemorial. Yes, they should be protected from being hurt and harmed by predatory adults, but given the rate of teenage pregnancy far too many are experimenting with each other in the riskiest way. Wouldn't many parents rather that their teenagers sat behind a computer looking at pictures and chatting to strangers they never meet, than went out partying, getting drunk, and risking getting pregnant (or someone pregnant) or catching something nasty?

Risk is all around, it is about life. The best gift any parent can give to their children is to nurture their ability to reason, balance risk with opportunity and make informed judgments, and to be monitored, and observed as they mature with that ability.

The internet is no different.


KG said...

YES!!Exactly. But that's commonsense, something in uncommonly short supply....

Lindsay said...

My ten year-old had her website hacked, matter deleted and "rude" words left behind. She was very, very upset because of the time and effort that appeared wasted and hurt because someone would have such mean intentions to her. We had tears and frustration. But after about 15 minutes she sniffed loudly, figured out how to retrieve the deleted matter and future safeguard herself. (She uses the laptop next to me and that's the only place she can use it online. But I do not obsessively watch over her shoulder.)

libertyscott said...

Lindsay, exactly. It is awful people do this sort of thing, but it made her smarter, and you are giving her the supervision that is appropriate.

Half the issues is parents who don't give a damn about most of what their kids do, the internet becomes just another outlet.