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Make lessons in Web ethics a part of children's education
By ILENE BERSON and MICHAEL BERSON, Special to the Times
Published September 15, 2007
In educational settings and at home, cyberspace and electronic communication bombard the senses with rapid transmission of complex messages. Adult caregivers typically underestimate the influence of digital technologies on young children's behavior and the potential for risk. While research has revealed that the Internet can be used for intellectual development, its use has behavioral repercussions and emotional implications as well.
The Internet can expose young people to information with questionable legitimacy, ideas that can be contrary to positive behaviors and messages that are intended to manipulate their actions or beliefs. The potential risks include exposure to online stalking; obscene interactions, including unsolicited exposure to pornographic material; spamming; flaming (online verbal abuse); hate speech; threats of violence; unwanted advances; consumer exploitation; and sexual predators.
Ensuring the online safety of young children is an ongoing process that needs to be of utmost concern to caregivers and child-serving professionals. It is not sufficient to merely identify risks or disseminate a list of practical online safety tips for children to memorize. It is necessary to develop prevention strategies that are relevant to children's experiences online.
Just as we teach children to be good citizens of their communities, we can teach them to be responsible citizens of cyberspace. Many online resources are available for integrating key ideas associated with cyber-safety into the school curriculum and fostering responsible citizenship on the Internet. A good place to start is a discussion that centers on this tenet: In cyberspace - just as in our classrooms and on the playground - we need to respect the rights of others. Students also need to understand that, just like in the real world, misbehavior can have serious consequences. The most important thing that parents and teachers should remember is that they don't have to be information-technology experts to integrate activities that teach the basics of such cyberethics. Indeed, integrating cybercitizenship activities into everyday educational experiences should be a natural and seamless way to prepare children for the digital world.
Investments in children's present and future functioning necessitate allocation of resources to address education, physical health, emotional well-being and economic security in the digital spaces they roam. Regardless of age, children need secure and supportive environments where caring adults advocate for their safety and well-being. Young children require family and community-based supports that enhance the skills of caregivers to build a strong foundation for the child's development, while adolescents require opportunities to help shape their own future through active participation. Internet safety education initiatives can provide the impetus for accessing the energy and ingenuity of youth who can be partners in improving the future status of their peers.
It was recently announced that 350 Auckland Kindergarten Association teachers will be trained about keeping their kindergartens safer when using information and communication technology. The training has been developed by Netsafe, the New Zealand Internet Safety Group. They have taken a comprehensive, community-based approach that includes a developmental perspective in preparing future cybercitizens across all grade levels. In addition to teacher preparation, Netsafe has released a free Web-based resource for parents to use with their young children to introduce safe online practices http://www.hectorsworld.com/.
In a new survey conducted by the State Educational Technology Directors Association in cooperation with Cable in the Classroom, states ranked the protection of students from online dangers as their greatest area of need for intervention. Now is the time to let your school district know that you support efforts to promote policies and programs that promote a systemic approach to children's safety online at school and at home.
Ilene Berson, associate professor of early childhood education at the University of South Florida, and Michael Berson, professor of social science education at USF, are internationally recognized scholars in the field of cybersafety and ethics. They serve as advisors to Netsafe New Zealand and iSafe.