I can not blame technology, the Internet included, for your kids safety (or unsafety) on the Internet. I have spent more than twenty-five years in the technical field, and it would be ironic and shameful if I was promoting something that was putting my kid in danger. However, something is to blame, and I tend to come back to the same question "Are your kids in more danger today compared to when you were their age?"
I truly believe they are in more danger now than when we were kids. Let's look at three different scenarios to give some context to my views: bullying, sexual predators, and violent content.
Stop The Cyber Bully?
Think about when you were mostly the same age as your child. What were you doing in the school yard? If you were unlucky, then you as a kid may have been bullied by other kids at the school. Maybe you even witnessed a bullying incident. Bullying in your kid-days typically stayed in the school yard. When it was time to go home, the mental effects of bullying probably trailed home with you, and when you returned to school the next day, the bullying may have picked up from where it left off – verbal and possibly physical abuse. The key thing is that you did not drag the bullying home with you. It stayed at school. Today, a kid usually does not have the luxury of leaving the bullying on the school grounds. The bullying can follow them wherever they go, called cyber bullying.
Cyber bullying is Internet-based, and you did not have the Internet as a kid. The closest resemblance to something like the Internet was probably a telephone or a ham radio – and I'm really stretching my imagination. If someone wanted to spread the bullying word about you, the best they could probably do tell their school friends or maybe spread the bully word by telephone – a very slow and laborious way of spreading the bully word.
Today, however, the bullying word spreads exceptionally fast, and its difficult to stop cyber bullying. I have witnessed live bullying episodes on the Internet, namely Twitter and Facebook. Not only does the bullying word spread fast, but those who instigate it can do so anonymously. During your kid-days bullying was usually face-to-face, so you knew exactly who was behind the events. Today the probability of the bully remaining anonymous is fairly high. They just hide behind fake profiles and userid's, then launch "operation clandestine bully spread".
Predators On The Internet?
Then there is the predator world. As a kid did you ever have a fear of being stalked by a predator? Did you ever think they (the stalker) was going to take you away and do mean? Did your parents think behind every dark corner lurked a predator? I know for a fact that I never feared such a thing, and neither did my parents. If my parents had concerns it certainly did not overwhelm or rule their lives. Once in awhile they may have reminded me "Not to talk with strangers". In fact, I felt extremely safe – walked to school & my friends by myself and played outside after sunset. Even though there may have been real dangers I never felt threatened. I felt totally safe!
Today, as a parent I am extremely conscious of the Internet Predator. I have already educated my kid about chat rooms and how not to communicate with strangers. I'm definitely not an old-fashioned parent, but my instincts tell me to keep myself alert and watch for any tell-tale signs that my kid is in predator danger.
It's obvious that Predators on the Internet are a real concern among many parents. I am constantly witnessing parents telling their kids not to friend anyone on Facebook that they do not know. The hip parents tell their kids "NOT TO LMIRL" to anyone that they have not previously met in real life (aka. Do not talk with strangers). In the Twitter world. many Twitter Teens already have a huge amount of followers, and would venture to guess that they do not even know who most of them are. I've seen kids with thousands of followers, and even if they had a fraction of the amount of followers that they have, there is no practical way that they know every one of them. So basically, if your kids are on Twitter they are probably talking to strangers – I'm sure many more more than you spoke to as a kid.
The Meaning Of Violence?
When you start comparing the violence that you as kid were exposed to compared to today's kids, there is a dramatic difference. When I was the same age as my son is now the amount of the violent content I was exposed to was negligible compared to that of today's kids.
I was born in South Africa, and as a form of entertainment, my parents rented 16mm reel-to-reel movies on the weekend. The 16mm reel-to-reel movies were South Africa's equivalent of North America's, once popular, Beta or VHS. The 1967 Bonnie & Clyde was the most violent movie that my parents ever rented, which we (the kids) were sent to our bedrooms to play while they (our parents) watched movie. Every once in awhile we used to sneak a peek and get our dose of blood & gore. Bonnie & Clyde, by the way, is rated R by the MPAA, and Age 14 by Common Sense Media.
Fast forward to 2011 – I can list at least a dozen Internet or console based games that are extremely violent in nature, and know of kids that are under 10 years old who play these games. I will not go into details about the games, but they are rated "Not for Kids" and "5 circle violence" by Common Sense Media. Today's violent content does not fit into the Bonnie & Clyde genre – what was rated R in 1967 seems to be rated OK for today's teens. It is relative though, in 1967, as a kid, I was trying to watch content that was "not for kids" and in 2011 kids are still immersed in content that is "not for kids", albeit the content is more graphically violent – – eg. "Call of Duty".
About The Internet For Kids
So when you start comparing kids to now and when you where a kid, it should be clear that today's kids are more susceptible to dangers than yesterdays kids. Your initial inkling, after taking into account bullying, sexual predators, and violent content is to probably blame the Internet. Is not the Internet the big difference between now and then? It may seem so, but I do not believe the Internet and technology is to blame.
The Internet is just an efficient mechanism to get messages, information, and content from one place to another, and has not changed the underlying cause or motivation of human behavior. There are many documented stories that show bullying, violence and other related incidences and are part of our history. Internet or no Internet there will still be bullying, sexual predators, and violent content. The Internet has just made access to content, messages and information much easier and more pervasive than it's ever been.
I believe that we can not totally eliminate bullying, the sexual predator, and violent content because in order to do so we will need to dig really deep and start altering almost everything about society – not a realistic endeavor. We need to live with the consequences of our progress, and keep on managing and tame the elements that have put our kids in potential danger. Even though I do not blame technology and the Internet as the source of our kids safety (or unsafety), I fully recognize that the Internet has given bullying, predators, and violent content an easy, and inexpensive way to access and abuse the unassuming kid .
The bullying message can be transported more quickly, efficiently and anonymously than a face-to-face conversation; Predators can hide behind smoke screens and pretend to be younger than they say; Content, violent or tame, can be distributed through the Internet more easily than renting a game or a video. The Internet is not going away, and is emerging quickly.
We still need to do what we do best – that is guide our kids safely until they are able to take over that responsibility themselves. It is necessary and important that we continue learning how to tame the 'Internet beast'. We will get there, but for now our persistence to guide our kids safely through the Internet must prevail.