Online safety messages must adjust to generation of parents as digital natives

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

When I started in the mid-90’s and even when I co-founded in 2005, it was widely assumed that parents were digital immigrants and that to be a digital native, you had to be a kid. But time moves on and some of those digital natives are now parents.

Demographic shift

That’s an important demographic shift because it means that at least some of those who are raising children today grew up with access to personal computers and, in some cases, even smart phones. It affects what I and other Internet safety professionals say at parent meetings as well as the target audience of who we need to reach with advice about safety, security, privacy and civility.

Although the calendar makes this obvious (a baby born the year the Apple II came out is now 36), the impact of digital natives as parents didn’t strike me until I read the results of a recent Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) survey that found that the majority of parents (59 percent) said they are “highly confident” in their ability to manage their child’s technology use. Parents of younger children are even more likely (69 percent) to feel that they can track what their kids are doing with tech. The study found that 81 percent of parents “think they know a lot or most of what their children do” when using technology.

And this is the first survey I’ve seen where a majority (65 percent) of parents say they know more about technology and online activities than their child does.

Parents no longer clueless

My first reaction was that it debunks the myth that parents are clueless, but then it occurred to me that this is a new generation of parents. In addition to having been born after the introduction of the Apple II, some of today’s parents probably had iPhones in high school or at least in college and I suspect the majority of them grew up with access to AOL and other connected services.

Knowing that many parents are digital natives doesn’t put Internet safety groups like ConnectSafely, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) or iKeepSafe out of business because even tech savvy people need to be reminded about safety, privacy and security as well as the importance of being kind online. Plus, the online landscape is constantly changing.

Even digital natives are immigrants to the Internet of Things. No matter how tech savvy you may be, chances are you have little or no experience when it comes to things like how to protect your baby cam from prying eyes or to make sure your net-connected door locks are secure. Being adept at using the Internet doesn’t teach you to safely pilot a drone or to be sure your connected car is secure.

Challenges even for tech-savvy adults

Tech knowledge doesn’t necessarily correlate to safe and appropriate use of tech. Witness the many millennials who are spending too much time on their devices and too little time on their relationships. It would be funny if it weren’t true, but I have seen plenty of people texting far away friends while failing to interact with friends inches away. Come to think of it, I’ve been guilty of that myself.

Knowledge certainly doesn’t guarantee kindness. A survey conducted last year by Pew Research found that 73 percent of Internet users have seen someone harassed online and 40 percent have personally experienced it. But what’s even more disturbing is that young adults — mostly digital natives — “are more likely than any other demographic group to experience online harassment.” Nearly two-thirds of that 18-29 age-group “have been the target of at least one of the six elements of harassment that were queried in the survey. Among those 18-24, the proportion is 70 percent.” It’s even worse for young women.

Being a tech savvy young parent doesn’t necessarily mean that you rely on technology to protect your child. That same FOSI survey found that just over a third (36 percent) of parents say they have used parental controls to limit or monitor their children’ activities. A lot of people (myself included when my kids were younger) try controls and then abandon them. Of those parents who don’t use control or monitoring software, 41 percent say they trust their child and 39 percent say they have rules that the kids follow. Overall, 87 percent of parents say they have rules for their child’s technology use including when and how their kids can get online.

I actually find it encouraging that most of today’s parents are relying on parenting rather than technology to guide their children. While I recognize that there are some at-risk kids who might need filters or online parental surveillance, I don’t think it’s necessary or even helpful for most families, especially as kids enter their teen years.

The software that runs between kids’ ears

Internal controls — the software that runs in the computer between your child’s ears — is a lot more effective in the long run. Besides, mom and dad can’t and shouldn’t monitor everything a child does and, eventually, that kid will grow up and have to rely on the judgment and critical thinking skills they acquired when they were children.

As the parent of two young adults, it makes me proud to know that the kids my contemporaries raised are turning into good parents and I’m confident that their kids will turn out pretty good too.