This week, I was invited to be a guest of AT&T to the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) Annual Conference in DC. After a day of discussions on topics from raising good cyber-citizens to the importance of parental involvement in keeping kids safe online and teaching them proper online behavior, to setting boundaries with kids and their time spent with technology, I left feeling more prepared and a little more paranoid about the dangers lurking behind the screen for my girls.
I could easily spend weeks on the range of topics covered just in the one day but after some time processing, I’ve decided to focus on: raising good cyber-citizens, teaching kids that parental involvement in their online activities is not the same as parental monitoring, and some safety tools I learned about that are there to make our lives as parents easier.
Raising Good Cyber-Citizens
My eldest just started Kindergarten in September and I will admit, I was a little surprised when she started coming home with sheets from McGruff, our favorite crime-fighting dog, teaching her to stay away from drugs, alcohol and needles. My initial reaction was it seemed a little young. But what I now am wondering is, where is the talk about online safety and modeling good behavior when they are on the computer; that their online behavior should mirror the way we expect them to behave in the classroom or the park? It almost seems dated to keep seeing these McGruff papers without any reference to computers and strangers online, doesn’t it?
The challenge facing educators across the country with integrating online safety and responsibility into their classroom was raised several times at the FOSI conference. Dave Miles of FOSI showed us a fascinating 4-minute video loaded with startling facts about kids and their online behaviors, both in the US and globally, and one fact noted that only 24% of teachers feel they are “very well prepared” to teach about protecting personal information on the internet. Contrast this figure with the fact that almost 50% of children can access the internet in their bedroom yet 60% of parents don’t use parental controls because they think they aren’t necessary when rules are in place. One must really question the naive implicit trust of parents to think they don’t need to go a few extra steps beyond just establishing internet rules. Or instead of trust, is it laziness, or is it just lack of awareness?
Watching the video, what was particularly unsettling to me was the figures noting the percentages of girls, specifically, who reveal their ages freely online and share their passwords with others. Sure, they are 16 and want to tell the world they can now drive. But again, is it worth it? Are we communicating enough with our kids that the lines between private and public are so severely blurred anymore that they must always be aware of the consequences of over-sharing online?
During Miles’ speech, he notably emphasized that children aren’t processing the concept of anonymity online. He explained that while children fundamentally come to understand the importance of not getting into cars with strangers but when they are placed in front of this “amorphous, cloud like space” – the internet – their ability to appreciate that their actions are not anonymous and have consequences is much less appreciated. It takes work and time for them to come to understand they are not, in fact, ever anonymous online.
So what can we do? A common thread throughout the day was the importance of parents taking active, constant roles in engaging their kids in conversations about what they do online, how they act, what they see, and how they talk about people online. These discussions need to start early and continue. And teachers and schools must also support this dialogue. Frederick Lane, keynote speaker at FOSI and author of “Cybertraps for the Young,” emphasized the reality that homework is not just for kids anymore, that parents must stay adept and current with the burgeoning technology and apps at our kids’ disposal. The poignant example he offered was on the photo sharing sites that kids are eager to use. While researching for his book, he found that parents were stunned to learn that when a child uploads a picture of themself on a photo sharing site, it can at once be shared with over 200 photo sharing sites globally, with just one click of a button. Do we want our children to be globally distributing pictures of themselves? Are we fully aware of the consequences of their seamless and eager ability to navigate the web? Are our children aware beyond the initial satisfaction they glean from sharing their picture with their “friends?”
Finally, there were several interesting discussions on cyber-bullying and sexting. One comment that really struck me that ties into the importance of both schools and parents working together to help teach our children to be good, responsible and safe “cyber-citizens,” was about the issue of sexting. It was made by Frederick Lane during his keynote address. He discussed that the cyber-ethical behavior of adults and the media is critical in modeling good cyber-citizenship behavior for kids and remarked that the cases of Vanessa Hutchins, Hannah Montana, Ashton Kutcher and even the Anthony Weiner drama were all couched in a “ha ha – isn’t it funny” framework. When we react this way, we are teaching our kids that sexting is okay, sometimes funny, instead of reprehensible and against the law. He then offered that if kids receive sex education in school, have we considered incorporating “sext education” into that curriculum. I thought it was a great question and certainly one I hadn’t considered because my kids are still so young.
Parental Involvement or Parental Monitoring?
The lines between engaging kids in conversations about good online behavior and then blatantly spying on them was a grey area to me prior to the FOSI Conference. Again, I say this as a parent with a 6-and 3-year-old, so difficult scenarios and questions haven’t yet been raised in my own house but I have given it much consideration. I’ve always believed that unless children know that their parents fundamentally trust them, then how can we expect them to actually make good decisions? Philosophically, I hover somewhere between free range parenting and flirting with helicopter parenting on any given day. As kids, my parents gave me and my sisters a considerable amount of freedom and it showed us that they trusted us and in return, most of the time, we weren’t inclined to violate that trust. It also gave me a certain confidence in myself that I believe has served me well so far in life. So when I hear of parents having all their 10-year-olds emails sent to their account so they can read them, I have almost a visceral reaction to that. And then I listened to Frederick Lane’s keynote address at FOSI. He said that it’s flawed logic to think of online safety as spying on your kids, instead he framed it as parental involvement, not parental monitoring. He referenced his own 16-year-old son, who he said is a burgeoning civil rights attorney, and he confidently noted “he doesn’t have an unfettered right to privacy because he’s not an adult.”
That statement really struck a chord with me, as well as the argument that parental involvement is not spying. It’s reality. Parents need to be involved and engaged in the online activities and behaviors of their kids. Several people beyond Frederick Lane addressed this topic, including during one of the break-out sessions, and it’s clear that like everything else in parenthood, there is a wide spectrum of approaches to parental involvement. Having my kids’ emails forwarded to me still doesn’t sit right with me. But not allowing computers in their bedrooms and establishing a family rule that cell phones get placed in my bedroom by 8pm every night to be charged – is the kind of parental involvement that I fully intend to execute.
So what safety tools are available to parents to help us keep our kids safe and raise good cyber-citizens? To be involved but not spy? It’s your lucky day because I learned about some fabulous and free programs – as well as some other tools. First up, Common Sense Media and AT&T joined forces to bring parents safety tools and family friendly content ratings for mobile apps, video games and more. AT&T represenatives explained that their research is showing that among their 100 million wireless customers, the families and parents are all looking for ways to cut through the clutter and really utilize helpful tools to keep their kids safe, especially now that more than half of all children have access to smartphones and tablet devices at home. Looking forward, Common Sense Media and AT&T will collaborate to incorporate Common Sense reviews and ratings into AT&T services.
Until then, parents can download the free Common Sense App to get up-to-date reviews, ratings and recommendations tailored to the child’s age. I was unaware of this App and immediately poked around online to learn more about it. After reading this glowing review, I downloaded the free app and immediately became obsessed. You can enter the age of your child and select what sorts of reviews you are looking for: games, books, movies, music and more – and in a blink of an eye, you are offered a host of options to scroll through with ratings for educational purpose, violence, even consumerism messaging. The app offers book and gift suggestions – so it’s not only useful for parents but also family members who might be looking for gift ideas for grandkids, nieces, nephews, etc.
AT&T has also launched a Smart Controls site where parents can download parental controls onto smart phones, manage the privacy settings of the FamilyMap and help avoid viruses. The site is also a great resource to find helpful websites and up-to-date resources on the latest safety issues facing families today.
In addition to these resources, Leticia, author of TechSavvy Mama and local DC mom, was a panelist in one of the break-out sessions and she noted that Safely is a preferred resource for her family for Facebook monitoring. I also had a chance to speak with the Safely reps at their booth at the FOSI conference and intend to utilize their service when the time comes in my house. Leticia noted that Safely isn’t used as a spying tool but it is a free service that compiles a report to show parents what their child’s behavior is like on Facebook through weekly reports. You can also monitor the average ages of their “friends” on Facebook and one of the Safely reps explained that coming in the future will be a new tool that can detect the tone your child is using on Facebook – to alert you of aggressive behavior.
Finally, Google reps had a very informative booth at the conference — little did I know with one easy step – you can turn on parental controls to filter out unwanted content from Google searches or YouTube videos (click those links to learn how easily and quickly you can activate the privacy settings).
Online Safety and raising good cyber-citizens requires constant communication on the part of parents, it also requires that parents spend the time to stay current on technology, games, apps and whatever else continues becomes hot online as our kids get older. I appreciated hearing from a few speakers that despite the doom and gloom and creepy strangers lurking online, the reality is that technology opens a world of possibility and opportunities to our kids.
Disclosure: AT&T invited me as their guest to attend the FOSI conference and compensated me for my time and writing about my experience. My analysis of the day I spent at FOSI is my own analysis.