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Keeping Kids Out of High-Tech Trouble
Russell A. Sabella, Ph.D.
In the real world, we as adults can set up physical boundaries to help us contain our children to spaces we deem safe. When we take them to the park, we make sure our kids stay inside the fence. When we visit a video store, we stick with the children's section and we don't let them venture into the back room toward the adult videos. Schools have hallways, some have fences, and they all have procedures for making sure that kids get from one place to the other while being supervised and monitored. At home, we activate our alarm systems at night to ward off intruders. Other boundaries in the form of rules exist. We don't allow our children to play beyond a certain perimeter in our neighborhoods or communities. We wouldn't take them with us to a night club where adult activities take place. There are laws in place so that our children cannot simply go to a convenience store and purchase alcohol, tobacco, or adult magazines. If an underage child or minor takes a flight, an attendant escorts him the entire way and checks for identification when delivering the child to his destination.
Technology has at least blurred if not eliminated these real world boundaries. The Internet and other high-tech gadgets have essentially introduced a high-speed interstate upon which we all travel yet a driver's license is not necessarily required. Road signs are unclear or non-existent. The small number of "rules of the road" are not typically enforced and the "strip joints" are right next door to the ice cream shops. Very few people verify a "driver's" age and traffic occurs at all hours of the day and night. The Internet connected computer in particular has become a potential "back door" for children (and others) to enter or exit our homes as they please.
I believe that parenting has always been a tough job although I think you would agree (even the elders I talk too agree) that it is tougher now than ever before. The world is truly getting smaller and moving faster, in large part due to technology that has bridged great divides and has afforded the power of large companies to the individual. The world is changing and its changing fast. As parents we want to help our children take advantage of these tools in a way that bests advances their development. There are more “bases” to cover in the course of supervision. There are many more options for us to consider when making decisions about how our children achieve. More now than ever before, we need to stay focused and goal oriented in a world that is chaotic and uncertain. We need to realize that “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Just because you can watch 300 channels of television, doesn’t mean you should increase the amount of time you watch television. Just because you can share your information with the rest of the world in the blink of an eye doesn’t mean that you should. Just because you can receive a call from anywhere and at any time doesn’t mean you should answer it.
In many households, children are more technologically literate than their parents or guardians. This makes sense. Children are growing up in this high-tech world. They have been immersed in rapid technological developments and have grown quite accustomed to change. In contrast, their parents and other care takers grew up in a different world and have been forced to adapt. For many adults, adapting to the amazing changes brought on by technology has come with fear, avoidance, and certainly stress. This has created an imbalance between kids who are "in the know" and their parents/care takers whom are "in the dark." And because technological literacy in our current information age translates into power, kids are in some ways more powerful than their parents. This is not good. Parents are entrusted to provide appropriate structure, guidance, supervision, and much more in the course of caring for their children. Yet, a lack of understanding about technology has compromised their ability to do just that.
My latest book, GuardingKids.com: A Practical Guide to Keeping Kids Out of High-Tech Trouble, is designed to empower parents, educators, and other care takers by better understanding the technology terrain. Readers will be better able to help children safely and securely navigate a minefield of inappropriate and risky situations. From podcasts to porn, cyberbullying to cell phones, this new book helps readers to understand the risks that emerge when high-tech tools, uninformed parents, and exuberant youth collide. For instance, did you know:
■ Pornography is not just for computers anymore. One can now also download porn via gadgets such as Play Station Portables (PSP), iPods, and even cell phones. Children can also trade or share an array of inappropriate media via their gadgets via wireless, bluetooth, or cell phone connections.
■ Cyberbullying is a relatively new problem that is facing our computer savvy students which involves the use of information and communication technologies such as e-mail, cell phone and pager text messages, instant messaging (IM), defamatory personal web sites, and defamatory online personal polling web sites, to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others. Cyberbullying is a very serious problem that can have fatal consequences (e.g., see http://www.jaredstory.com/ or http://www.jeffreyjohnston.org/).
■ Some children are using the photo and video features of their cell phones to record and send inappropriate (and perhaps illegal) content. These include photos and/or videos of girls' underwear (i.e., upskirting), sexual activity, nudity, or pages from a school exam or other protected materials. These files can easily be posted on websites and shared among many friends.
■ Some children are showing signs of technology based addictions such as with gaming, shopping, social networking, gambling, auctions, and simple surfing.
■ Parents are being held liable for pirating of music and software, especially using P2P networks such as BearShare, LimeWire, Morpheus, Kazaa, eMule, and Grokster (to name a very few).
■ When children disclose personal information or voice their (sometimes exuberant) opinions, they may also jeopardize themselves or others in yet another way. You see, most everything posted on any website today may possibly, and will probably be accessible for all of time. Information shared with others via listserv, websites, IM, blogs, and other media is typically stored in massive databases, indexed, and easily retrievable for future reference. Also, once something is sent or posted to someone else, it essentially becomes public domain. That is, the content can be copied, download, and passed on to others without permission of the original owner, right or wrong, whether the owner likes it or not. You or your child may believe that what you communicate today is "no big deal" although, tomorrow, the same information could be considered ammunition by others to use against you or your loved ones.
■ I think we all know that content on the World Wide Web meets with very little censorship. In the United States and some other countries, no other communication medium compares to the Internet for how rigorously people have exercised their right to freedom of speech. However, I'm not sure you appreciate the extent to which this is true. On the web, anyone can easily and quickly access content that promotes and supports activities such as suicide, eating disorders, self-injury, violence and racism.
■ Podcasting, in its basic form, involves creating audio files (most commonly in MP3 format) and making them available online in a way that allows users to automatically download the files for listening at their convenience (i.e., subscribing to the podcast). After subscribing to the podcast, future "broadcasts" automatically download to your computer, which can then be transferred easily to a handheld such as a Palm OS Handheld, a Pocket PC, cell phone, or an iPod - hence, the name Podcast. In essence, anyone with a computer, Internet access, free software, and a microphone can turn their computer into a personal studio and produce their very own radio show/program. Pornographers, bigots, bullies, and others have also discovered podcasts as a powerful method for disseminating information. This information is mostly audio although video podcasts or V-casts are quickly picking up momentum. Anyone who has the knowledge, including children, can easily access (and/or produce) a wide range of smut or obscene matter.
Also included in the book, GuardingKids.com, are two full chapters that describe various solutions that we can take to reduce high-tech risks among our children. For example:
■ First and foremost, develop an ongoing relationship with your child that supports collaborative exploration and learning about technology. Also, help your child to trust you and communicate potentially problematic activity by not "flipping out." That is, stay calm and rational when dealing with technology related problems. Be curious instead of confrontational.
■ Support your child's school in teaching the skills, knowledge, and attitudes included in technology/media literacy. You can download a basic child-parent agreement at http://www.schoolcounselor.com/pdf/student-contract.pdf
■ Keep your home computer in a location that is easily viewable.
■ Turn on the Safe Filtering mode on your search engines. In addition, use other filtering/blocking software such as Cybersitter (which I use and highly recommend). Another option to consider is to investigate and choose a "Family Friendly" Internet Service Provider (ISP) (read more by visiting http://tinyurl.com/f2zxd).
■ If you choose to give your child a cell phone, purchase one that is "child friendly." That is, users of this phone can only send and receive calls from others approved by parents.
■ Gain personal and practical experience of various technologies so you can listen and talk with your children with authority. That is, become more technologically literate yourself. For example, set up your own MySpace.com account and learn how it is used.
■ Visit www.GuardingKids.com/links for helpful resources and materials.
In essence, technology provides us with tools to help us accomplish our work more effectively and efficiently beyond what we can do without it. Computers, cell phones, gaming devices, iPods, and other gadgets help us to stay connected, have fun, and better learn. Such power, however, comes with great responsibility and sometimes at a premium price. We must all make certain that we are using high-tech tools responsibly for ourselves and our society. We must ensure that our children understand how to embrace the tools of the 21st century in a manner that is safe and secure. Technological literacy for adults and children alike will help us to make decisions that are right and realistic. It is important that we each make a personal commitment and take the time to evaluate the use and impact of technology in the lives of our families. Then, with great care, it is critical that we appropriately learn, teach, monitor, and supervise so that we may appropriately guard our kids from high-tech trouble.
With technology, we can do many things. However, just because we can, doesn't mean we should.
Dr. Russell A. Sabella is currently a Professor of Counseling in the College of Education, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida and President of Sabella & Associates, LLC, an Educational Consulting, Training and Development practice.
Russ is author of numerous articles published in journals, magazines, and newsletters. He is co-author of two books entitled Confronting Sexual Harassment: Learning Activities for Teens (Educational Media; 1995) and Counseling in the 21st Century: Using Technology to Improve Practice (American Counseling Association; 2004). He is also author of several other books including the popular SchoolCounselor.com: A Friendly and Practical Guide to the World Wide Web (2nd edition; Educational Media; 2003), GuardingKids.com A Practical Guide to Keeping Kids Out of High-Tech Trouble (2008, Educational Media Corporation), and School counseling principles: Foundations and basics (2007: American School Counselor Association).
Dr. Sabella is well-known for his numerous trainings including the Technology Boot Camp for Counselors, Solution Focused Brief Counseling, and Datability conducted throughout the country. Russ has trained and consulted with thousands of school counselors, educators, parents, and organizational leaders throughout the country. Dr. Sabella is past President (2003-2004) of the of the American School Counselor Association.