The internet has become as essential to our lives as water and air. In less than a lifetime, we’ve learned to connect with people across the globe almost instantaneously through laptops, video games, phones, and many other devices that did not exist five or ten years ago. But with great power, comes great responsibility. Fake news and deep fakes spread across the internet can influence the opinions and actions of millions. And seemingly innocent videos targeted at kids makes you wonder what’s wrong with people.
In our home, technology is treated as a powerful tool, a privilege, and a huge responsibility. We’ve set up a few rules about internet and device usage but we allow our kids the space to build, play, explore, fail, and try again… I keep asking myself, “Is the internet safe?”.
When we search the internet, we are often in a physical setting that allows us to lower our guard and lower our defenses. We are deceived that the internet is safe because while we browse, we are in our home, in the car, or surrounded by people we trust (who are also often on their devices). In fact, searching the internet can be far more dangerous than we suspect because unlike a social setting where individuals are physically present and can read body language, voice inflection, and facial expressions, the anonymity of the internet creates a barrier that prevents us from picking up on social cues essential to successful human communication.
Recently my kids searched and read false information on the internet that they took as truth. They know that if they have a question about something unfamiliar, they should ask their parents first, but this time they didn’t, and though it wasn’t disastrous or critically harmful, the next time it could be. So we talked about it.
This is what I said about searching the internet alone...
Searching the internet without me is like saying, “Bye Mom”, walking out the door and walking up to a total stranger... and then asking THEM your questions. After that, you allow them to take you by the hand and lead you back to THEIR place where you sit at THEIR kitchen table and they open up books and information they have available to them and then they show you videos and pictures of what you asked about…
In this instance, your stranger was named “Google”... and they showed you what they had available, based on your poorly crafted keywords.
When you’re searching on your own, unguided, you just might find content and information that may not actually be true or inform you in the way you thought it would. How about that? And because the information was false, derogatory, or half true and you acted upon that information or shared that information with others, you’re now an agent of false information.
Right now there’s a monopoly in who is creating, building, and disseminating the technology we use. Most often what you’ll find on the internet is from a cis, straight, white male gaze. That’s just one perspective of many. Are you really getting the full picture or the whole story if you use one source of information as your “EXPERT” advice?
After discussing this further, we talked more about media and digital literacy. In an effort to convey the real dangers we can find in seemingly safe spaces on the internet, I told my kids the story of Little Red Riding Hood, wandering through the woods to Grandma’s House:
Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods (aka the internet) with her “cookies” headed to Grandma’s House. In this instance, Grandma’s House is the “safe place” you guys were trying to land on the internet.
At the beginning of her journey she was warned (by her privacy settings and her pop-up blocker) that a Wolf was lurking in the woods. She clicked ignore and when she got to Grandma’s House everything looked normal. It looked like the destination, but Little Red Riding Hood didn’t check if she clicked on a “.com”, “.org”, or “.edu” site. She didn’t check if “Grandma’s House” was spelled properly or if the description under the search matched what she was looking for. So when Little Red Riding Hood opened the door (aka clicked on the link) Grandma looked questionable. Grandma looked really questionable.
As she was taught, Little Red Riding Hood did a bit of research before advancing forward.
“Grandma what big eyes you have...” (Is this information I’m seeing reputable?)
“Grandma what big ears you have...” (Is this information aligned with information I’ve heard before?)
“Grandma what big teeth you have...”
All signs that Little Red uncovered, pointed to the fact that she knew something was amiss but she didn’t have enough experience, to pinpoint exactly what “it” was and the Wolf ate her. Then the Woodsman (mom) comes in and cuts the Wolf open and saves Little Red Riding Hood.
This is media literacy. Just as Little Red Riding Hood asked “Grandma” questions about her appearance, when we get to our online “destination” we should check to make sure that the site is truthful, fact based, and can be supported by reputable sources.
Upon hearing this, my kids had a clearer understanding about why browsing the internet in uncharted spaces is dangerous and should be done with an adult.
Here’s my advice to parents who are beginning to take the training wheels off the internet for their kids:
No child under 13 should be on the internet for hours of time on their own. We’ve all experienced the “clickhole” and I don’t know about you, but I’ve journeyed to some very interesting spaces in even 20 minutes. Parents need to train their kids on internet safety or better yet, train with their kids, so that the whole family understands the dangers together and can set up rules as a group. Your children are an extension of you. This includes your IP address. If you wouldn’t give your 13 year old the keys to your car without question, why would you allow them to hop on the internet without question. Checking on your kids and what content and media they view is exhausting and tedious but it’s NOT a violation of their privacy because YOU will be held accountable if they bring that information to school, another family’s home, or engage in illicit activities online. If you haven’t already, talk with your tweens and teens about their online engagement and discuss where it aligns or is in dissonance with familial expectations.
I’m not sure if this latest parenting experience ends in parenting badge demerits or if it in fact turns into a parenting badge earned… but I’m proud of the open dialogue about internet safety and technology use that continues to occur within our family.
More on media literacy and internet safety:
Other awesome resources we approve:
How do you build trust with our children as they use the internet? How do you convey to them the importance of safety online and how to watch their backs, their browsers, and pop ups as they journey to find content that entertains and informs? Tell me on Twitter!
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working in edtech. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.