Should schools end Internet safety nights?

It’s time to get students involved in “Internet Safety Night” and maybe call it something else.

by Larry Magid

Ever since I founded SafeKids.com back in the mid-’90s, I’ve been giving talks at school events, typically on “Internet Safety Night.”

For years the attendance at those events was quite sparse, but interest started to pick up about three years ago after all the publicity of supposed predators on MySpace. Even though that “predator panic” turned out to be greatly exaggerated, there remains a fairly strong interest by parents wanting to know how to keep their kids safe online.

Of course, I’m all in favor of kids being safe and delighted that parents are expressing an interest in their children’s well being, but I think it may be time to put an end to school Internet safety nights. What we need instead are parent workshops dedicated to how kids are using interactive technology.

Call it Tech Parenting 2.0 or perhaps just “get a clue.” Whatever you call it, it’s time to put Internet safety into a larger context. And instead of mostly using police officers (as is often the case) or even “Internet safety experts” like me as presenters, they should get the kids involved. Almost every time I’ve listened to teens talk about how they use technology, I come away impressed and informed.

And we certainly don’t need an expert to read off a list of dos and don’t. Parents should instead be encouraged to understand how their kids are using technology – not to block it or control it — but to embrace it and explore it with them so that they can better engage in a family conversation about the use and misuse of technology.

Internet safety can’t be taught in a vacuum anymore than you can teach “book safety” or “pencil safety,” though I’m willing to bet that more people have been injured by sharp pencils than by the Internet.

What keeps young people safe online is not so much learning to regurgitate a set of adult prescribed rules, but empowering them to protect themselves by teaching critical thinking, media literacy and online ethics.

Critical thinking can also go a long way towards helping kids avoid risky or aggressive behavior by helping them think through the implications of their actions. Whether it’s posting something that could embarrass them later or saying something hurtful to a peer.

Media literacy includes knowing how to take advantage of good information that is coming at you while learning how to use the filter in your brain to avoid that which is incorrect, incomplete, irrelevant, harmful or just plain stupid. It can be as complex as teaching kids to evaluate the credibility of sources or as simple as learning how to distinguish between truth and those all-too-common “urban myths” that float around the Internet.

When it comes to digital ethics, we need to work with kids to treat themselves and others with respect. That means treating others as they want to be treated which obviously includes avoiding bullying and harassing others.

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