Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

The Internet: A New Stranger

The Internet has been described as an information superhighway which will create one global village, drawing people closer and providing them with a wealth of information. This seductive reasoning sounds good at first hearing: for example, we no longer have to step out of our homes to look up information at the library, it's at our fingertips in our very own homes. We can converse with people all over the globe, learning more about other cultures. Because they are virtually faceless and nameless, our differences have less of a chance of getting in the way of our relationships - we can accept people for their "essence," their "virtual" reality.

As parents, we may also be seduced on behalf of our children. The idea that they can get help with homework over the Net, look up information for research papers without ever leaving home, even become "pen pals" with someone in Sweden, or Russia, or Alaska - all of these are conceptually pleasant. The reality, as we're discovering however, is not necessarily so agreeable. In truth, the Internet appears to have connected our children with strangers who - if we were to see them on a street corner - would cause us to cross to the other side. Yet we've virtually pulled up our lawn chairs, opened the gates between our homes and those of our unknown neighbors, and allowed our children to wander unsupervised into the backyard next door - the only problem is that we have no idea who lives there. Mary Pipher, PhD, in her book, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, states that we live in houses without walls. Our children and teens are exposed to information which they may not be developmentally capable of handling, and to people whose sole intent may be to harm them. Yet we freely allow them access without considering the ramifications of our actions. She says that "the speed of (technological) change is as dizzying as our lack of reflection on its consequences." Many precedents, however, have been set for the planning which must accompany change - the problem is that we are failing to heed those precedents. One powerful example comes to mind. Before the Seneca tribe made changes the elders of the community would ask how those changes would affect the next seven generations. Dr. Pipher points out that we're not even asking how the changes are affecting our current generation.

So what's a parent to do? The Internet may be likened to the magazine stands our children pass each day on the streets of New York - while many newsworthy and educational magazines are displayed, so too are the pornographic ones flagrantly flaunted for our children's impressionable minds to absorb. Can we ignore the fact that our children see these? Can we ask every newsstand to cover them up? Can we keep our children in our homes so that they are never exposed? Doubtful. We must, therefore, seek to educate ourselves and our children about the dangers, we must promote open communication, we must supervise our children appropriately and we must raise our children responsibly. The problem will not go away, so we must prepare ourselves to deal with the problem.

Supervision

Just as you wouldn't allow your child, preteen or teen to cruise the bars in Manhattan, you shouldn't allow them to cruise the Internet unsupervised. The Internet provides your children access to other people's homes and to other people's lives. Moreover, these other people can easily disguise themselves - changing their name, gender, identifying characteristics - essentially becoming anything they think your children might be attracted to. Because conversation on the Net takes place entirely in words, and words are only 7% of communication (with body language being 55% and tone of voice being 38%) children can't even take advantage of the instinctual warnings which we heed based upon a person's facial expression or tone of voice. This leaves them at a distinct disadvantage. But, you might argue, how can I supervise my teenager? He's going to do what he wants to anyway, and he knows more about the computer than I do. It's true that many children (even younger than teenagers) know more about computers than their parents do. That's why educating yourself is a crucial component of adequate supervision.

Education

In order for the Seneca tribe to have seriously weighed the consequences of new technology and other changes prior to integrating these things into their culture, they must first have fully understood what the changes were. If you are going to have the Internet in your home, then you must fully explore it, dig into every nook and cranny, uncover the potentially dark and seedy places into which your children might wander, and know how that happens. How do you get into a "chat" room? How do you converse with someone? What are "private messages" about and for? How do you send them? How do you ignore them? Every parent must have at least a working knowledge of these and other Internet features in order to not only supervise their children, but to educate them as well. Just as you warned your toddler about the dangers of talking to strangers, you must have Net knowledge to fully warn your grade school, pre-teen or teenager about the new strangers in our lives.

Communication

Educating and warning your children or teens about the Internet also requires that you have solid, healthy and open lines of communication. Little benefit will be derived if you warn, but your children don't listen. Remember that communication is two-fold, you must not only talk, but you must listen as well. In fact, it is the listening - to your children's feelings, concerns, or even arguments about why the Internet is valuable to them - that will lay the foundation upon which you can voice your concerns and seek to teach them how to use their new tool responsibly. Good communication must extend beyond discussion about the Internet and permeate your daily life with your children. If you are having difficulty with this aspect of your relationship get help now, either with a private counselor or through parenting classes. And just because your child is a teenager is no excuse to throw up your hands in despair and assume communication isn't possible. As Michael Gurian points out in his book "The Wonder of Boys," we are the only culture who expects that our adolescents will rebel and hate us during those years. This is a self fulfilling prophecy. If other cultures can maintain open lines of communication and good relationships with their teenagers, there's no reason that we can't do the same.

Responsibility

Ultimately, just as you can't follow your child around throughout his day, protecting him and supervising his every movement, you can't continually watch over your child's shoulder as he navigates the Net. At some point you'll have to let go and trust that he will act responsibly. In order to do this, it first helps if you've taught him to be responsible in the other areas of his life. All children must have a fundamental understanding of the choices that they make in life and how those choices are connected to the consequences or potential consequences of their actions. Teaching your children responsibility is another parenting skill which you must learn in today's society. It is no longer enough to assume that the old ways of teaching responsible behavior will be enough. Our children, quite simply, are exposed to dangers and consequences which didn't exist a decade ago. Again, if you find yourself lacking in this skill, it's time to seek assistance.

The Internet doesn't have to be a dark scary alley down which we blindly send our children. It has the potential, I believe, to give our children information and help educate them. It can, if used wisely, provide a global village and give us new neighbors. For your children's sake, however, your going to have to get to know your neighbors.