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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Net safe? Are the kids in peril or are they themselves the peril?

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 10, 2008

Two articles in the Sunday Age caught my eye this week: Net Blamed as 10,000 Kids Turn to Crime (Mark Russell, Aug3, 2008) and Malice in Wonderland (Liz Porter, Aug 10, 2008).  The first warns of a surge in youth crime attributable to children’s exposure to raunchy and violent images on the internet while the latter explores the risks to young people who reveal intimate details about themselves online.  So, is it a case of the kids at risk, or is it the community if we raise a generation of young people inured by the net to violence?

The Sunday Age is becoming increasingly tabloid in its offerings, and perhaps Mark Russell is hoping to lift his profile with this sensationalist article about purported links between youth crime and the net.  One policeman, Inspector Steve Soden, head of the police youth affairs office, apparently made the claim that ‘too many children were viewing inappropriate content on the internet and this, coupled with boredom due to a lack of community services on Melbourne’s fringes was behind the alarming rise in youth crime.’  (My italics).   A discussion paper from the State government drugs and crime prevention committee actually attributes youth crime to social factors such as unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse,  homelessness, poor parenting and (of course!) schooling – but somehow Russell and the sub-editor who generated the headline have extrapolated from this that the internet is behind it all.  Quite why this should be so when years of research show that violent TV and films do not make people go out and commit violent crime is not explained.  Methinks Russell should take a refresher course in logic.  Or would that cruel his career as a tabloid journalist?/

Liz Porter’s article is more measured.  She explores the social network phenomenon that we’re just discovering is emerging in primary schools and makes some salient points.   It’s not just that kids posting salacious poses and raunchy content about their behaviour expose themselves to stalkers and cyber-bullying, it’s also that employers of the future may discriminate against those foolish enough to upload inappropriate or vulgar content online.  While adults are alert to privacy considerations on the net, kids are not, naively believing that only their friends can see their pages and that they retain control of their content at all times. 

They don’t seem to understand that material they delete can hang around the web forever notwithstanding. It’s not just that hostile peers can copy and paste and circulate embarrassing material, it’s that the social networking sites themselves don’t delete everything, even if a user decides to leave the network, and furthermore, their privacy setttings aren’t very reliable.  The kids certainly don’t expect teachers to be able to see their posts, and are indignant about such ‘snooping’.  It doesn’t occur to them that a google search for something else may well bring up their sites and that anyone can stumble on their indiscreet material.  They very rarely know that everything they post can be tracked through their IP address…

Teachers have an important role in dispelling these illusions about intimacy and net safety.  At Mossgiel Park we have just discovered the growing use of the Bebo site – aimed at 13+ teenagers, and actually quite responsible in its advice and terms of service.  The problem is that some of our students (mainly those with older siblings) are violating the terms of service since they’re not 13 yet, and until we advised them otherwise, had posted email and other contact details online.  Unfortunately the really useful safety guides can’t be viewed at school because all social networking sites are blocked, nor can the videos be downloaded, which is really frustrating for teachers trying to alert their students to these issues.

CyberKids Plus is an exception to the rule that all social networking sites are blocked in schools.  It’s a beaut new social networking initiative for 7-12 year olds that can be used in schools because it’s a safe online environment.  Adults can only join as teachers through their school, online teacher moderators supervise all content posted, and there are strict rules to prevent cyber-bullying, password poaching, and all forms of inappropriate content.  Kids are encouraged to post original creative work, but there are publishing standards to be met, and work is checked for plagiarism too.  Provided kids think it’s ‘cool enough’ it could be an attractive option for primary kids that will keep them away from the more perilous sites.  Let’s hope that it remains affordable for schools to use….

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