Friday, March 7, 2008 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Young kids and rational messaging about online safety

The debate over online child safety is just as heated abroad as it is here in the States. Over in the UK yesterday, according to this London Times article, Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis...

attacked the Government for not doing enough to raise awareness among children of the dangers posed by cyber-crime, at a time when the threat was growing and criminals were using increasingly sophisticated methods to target their victims. “From e-mail to file-sharing, social networking to shopping, the internet is part of our lives. But we’re not the only ones to have migrated to this new communication platform,” Mr Davis told delegates at an e-crime conference in London. “The internet is a shopping mall for criminals, and for many of us it’s in the home that cyber-crime strikes. These days our real valuables are the personal details that are measured in megabites, rather than our belongings.”

Apparently, Mr. Davis and fellow conservatives have also argued that children as young as 5 years of age should be taught about the dangers of putting their personal details on the internet.

A few thoughts on this... First, I’m all for online safety education and media literacy, but shouldn’t we be teaching our kids basic literacy first? My six year old doesn’t even know how to spell “Internet” yet!

Second, as I argued in my book on parental controls and online child safety, for children below 6 years of age, parents generally have the media / Internet experience under much tighter control. At that age, parents have much more say over how and when kids use media or access the Net. In many cases, they need our help logging on or just using a keyboard. Those are wonderful “teachable moments,” of course, and we could use them to teach children to be careful online.

But we should also not go overboard and tell 5 year old kids, as Mr. Davis suggests, that “The Internet is a shopping mall for criminals.” That would make my kids OVERLY paranoid about both the Internet and shopping malls! There is a world of difference between teaching smart, savvy thinking about safety—both online and off—and engaging in fear-mongering and paranoia. Our messaging to kids needs to be based on rational, reasoned risk analysis—not the psychology of fear.

That being said, I applaud those in the UK who are focusing on education strategies--as opposed to regulatory policies--as the first, and most sensible, approach to addressing online child safety concerns.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 12:41 PM | Online Safety & Parental Controls