Education is key to mitigating online ills

MARCH 16 — As a tech journalist who has covered many stories about children’s safety on the Internet, some which I’ve been writing about these past couple of weeks, I was once at the crossroads as to whether or not I should introduce the Internet to my kids.

Some parents I knew at that time had advocated a blanket “no” policy and did not allow their children onto the Internet as they felt there were just too many negative influences on the web.

But introduce the Net I did to my kids as I do not believe that censorship is the answer to keeping the nasties from my kids. As a children online safety educator once told me, “You can’t just create a ‘walled garden’ to keep negativity out of children’s way because one day they will be tall enough to peep over that wall.”

There are two reasons why I did not go down this road. Firstly, if we are thoroughly honest with ourselves, curiosity is what fuels people’s quest for knowledge and if we were to censor the Internet, we will also stem curiosity, which would be detrimental to the country because we will also curtail the quest for knowledge.

Secondly, instead of censoring the Internet, parents need to manage the flow of information — both the good and the bad content. Plainly put, minors need to be guided and managed, and parents need to make sure they know what is right and wrong, by teaching them to understand what information is useful and what is bad.

Last week my column touched on several broader steps parents can and should take with respect to their children’s exposure to the Net.

But underpinning all these steps really is education. Much of what we need to do with our kids where this topic is concerned is to talk openly about the Internet and dangers surrounding it, as well as deal with the security issues in an appropriate context so that our children know these ills happen.

For example, when my daughter recently asked me for a Facebook account, I asked her pointedly, “How much do you know about how Facebook works, and how it links the comments on your wall or your friends’ walls to other people, whom you may not know?” “Or do you know that pictures, whom you may not want posted on the wall of someone you don’t know, can inadvertently end up there because someone has tagged you in the first place?”

Often, and certainly in my daughter’s case, peer pressure is what persuades our children to want to have a Facebook account in the first place.

But as I explained more to my daughter about the mechanics of Facebook, I noticed she realised that it was not just about the “coolness” of connecting with her friends but that her actions on Facebook could also expose her to things that she does not want to happen, like in the case of posting pictures.

As I spoke to my daughter about this, I also touched on the issue of cyberbullying, of how there could be nasty people out there who will try to befriend her with the aim of trolling and making hurtful comments about any aspect of her, emotionally and physically.

Seven years ago, I interviewed Sangeet Bhullar, founder and director of Wisekids, a not-for-profit child educational organisation based in Wales. Her advice was invaluable and consists of a two-pronged strategy.

The first, she says, is to design and update our existing school curriculum to teach children about the Internet and the dangers surrounding it, as well as to deal with security issues in an appropriate context so that they know these ills can happen.

There’s no better way than to do this through education programmes in schools, as this is where children get most of their exposure.

In Malaysia, however, we’re a long way from having these programmes integrated into our school system, so it’s up to us parents to do something about it. But the principle is there for us to follow, and we need to ensure that we have kids who are able to think on their feet and who are able to distinguish between good and bad.

For example, if a child looks at a website, is he or she able to question if the content they’re looking at is true? “Are they able to ask questions such as: “Is this real? Should I trust what I’m reading or am I getting a pop-up advertisement, or “are these pop-ups just a part of spyware programs?”

By doing so, children would have a higher chance of helping themselves avert real dangers, as children would then have the resources to understand what is happening.

The second thing Sangeet advised was to emphasise the positive influences of the Internet. In other words, we need to be more holistic in our approach because these issues cannot be merely dealt with by warning children about the dangers on the Internet.

“It’s not about the absence of negativity as it is about the emphasis on the positive aspect of the Internet,” said Sangeet. “One of the biggest ways you can make children aware of these issues is to ensure that they are engaged with the Internet positively and securely.”

“For example, if we want our children to think about entrepreneurship, we need to engage our children by using the Internet to achieve this end. There are hundreds of sites that can help children learn about how to start a business and how the Internet can be used to make money,” Sangeet said, adding that it’s about giving them the responsibility to make the decision.

There are many other examples that we can use to focus our children on the positive elements of the Internet. The key is to spend time with our kids exploring together with them, and having an honest, open relationship with them, without judging them or reining them in too tightly.

As I wrap up this three-series column on children and online safety, it’s my hope that parents out there would not only begin to take seriously these issues but also take affirmative action. Locking up and throwing away the key to the computer isn’t the way forward and taking a laissez-faire attitude to this isn’t going to help either.

After all, these are our children we’re talking about. Ultimately, if we don’t care for and protect them, who will?

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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