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Talking about Internet safety

Tonight my husband and I initiated a discussion after dinner that neither of our children wanted to take part in. The topic was how people might take advantage of you or hurt you online.

The kids got a little uncomfortable, to say the least.

These days, teaching our kids to watch all directions when they're online is as important as teaching them to cross a street safely.

These days, teaching our kids to watch all directions when they’re online is as important as teaching them to cross a street safely.

Our kids start with a pretty serious disadvantage in the “you stupid old fogies don’t know what you’re talking about” department. As I pointed out to them, I got flamed on the Internet before it was called the Internet. Their father was amongst the first Americans to visit the World Wide Web.

We’re not newbies. We’re not teetotalers warning their kids against the danger of intoxication.

This is such an important conversation. The world that our kids are growing up in bears so little resemblance to the world we grew up in, it’s pretty much unprecedented. The only analogous situation I can think of is parents who grew up in peacetime raising kids in a war zone.

Everything bad that could happen to us when we were kids had to happen in the “real” world. This other world didn’t exist yet. The little pieces of it that did exist, like chat rooms that users dialed into on their modems, relate to the Web like BB guns to today’s automatic weapons.

This conversation wasn’t out of the blue. I think the only thing that responsible parents can do these days is to keep bringing up this topic, to keep it fresh in kids’ minds, and to keep all the avenues of discussion open at all times.

It makes kids uncomfortable, especially teens. Our twelve-year-old was rather annoyed that her little transgression had sparked this conversation again. Our sixteen-year-old straight-out announced that he didn’t need to talk about it and attempted to walk out.

Kids not only spend time online, much of their sense of self is not centered on their online interactions.

Teens live much of their lives in a digital world these days. And teens are built to wear their feelings very close to the surface of their skin. They feel deeply, which is great. Their first instinct is often to push away adults who make them feel deeply, which is not so great.

But we kept talking. We worked past the denials, the jokes, the sarcasm, the put-downs, and the brush-offs that kept coming our way. Because this topic is important, perhaps more important (statistically speaking) than talking about stranger abduction. Perhaps not quite as important as teaching your children to look both ways before they cross a street, but verging on that level of importance.

It’s easy for us to think, “my kid would never be so naive.” But let’s face it, we all make mistakes. As I explained to my children, I personally have made mistakes online that have led to hurt feelings and worse in my real life. It’s a real topic that we all have to face.

In the end, I think our kids heard and understood. But it wasn’t the end. This is an ongoing conversation as they mature and face new situations. I explained to my kids at after a half-century on this earth, I still turn to their dad and others I know for advice and guidance on how to react to situations online.

Lifelong learning isn’t just IRL.



Read my follow-up, Good people, bad people, and the rest of us.

Posted in Education, Parenting.

7 Responses

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  1. Suki says

    From my son just now, a sort of apology: “Sorry for belittling you during that conversation. I have to let you know that since you are smaller than me, I don’t need to belittle you.” Ah, parenting teenagers! They think they are so darn smart (and funny)!

  2. gasstationwithoutpumps says

    Suki, I only know one of your kids, but it seems to me that he knows enough about the risks of the Internet not to benefit much from “discussions” about how people might hurt you online. He doesn’t seem likely to be putting things on social media that are going to haunt him forever, nor to be a cyberbully or cyberbully victim.

    A better tactic for him might be occasional news items about scams, malware, and identity theft, to keep him alert to the changing face of Internet crime.

    I’ve no idea what education your daughter needs, so I have no useful advice there.

    I agree about the strangeness of kids you carried in your arms getting bigger than you—my son is taller than me and has grown a beard!

  3. Suki says

    Hi Kevin, I agree that he doesn’t need it for any specific reason, but I think it’s a good idea for families to have these discussions on a regular basis. Everyone in our family, though we are very savvy about these things, has done one thing or another online that has turned out badly. Luckily, nothing terrible has happened! But it’s good to remember that we can actually hurt and be hurt by others online, and also that what we post, even if it seems like it’s in a private space, becomes part of the Internet forever.

  4. Suki says

    A friend told me verbally that she felt that in this piece I was fear-mongering. I hope it doesn’t come across that way to everyone! I do think that having the conversation is important. Kids growing up with the Internet as part of their lives can be very casual about what they reveal and the relationships they get into. However, we don’t do fear-mongering in our house. The same friend asked that I offer more details about what we talked about, so I am working on that!

  5. Tina McRorie says

    Suki, I totally agree that it’s a conversation that you have to have and keep having. The Internet is like the Wild West, exciting, ever-changing and dangerous. And teens are built to take risks. I’m feeling the pressure very keenly with my family right now to help them find a healthy balance between their on-line lives and their real (I can’t decide whether or not to put quotes around that) lives. My parenting group, Monterey Bay Parenting, is having a meeting about this topic on Monday (sorry to buzz market) (10am 8/24 at Pacific Cultural Center). Three good books I’ve read recently are iRules, Talking Back to Facebook, and Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers. I always enjoy reading your thoughtful posts and I’m looking forward to hearing more from you on this topic.

    • Suki says

      Hi Tina, Thanks for the book recommendations and the mention of your group – those of you in the Monterey area take note! I know, I always put quotes around “real” life and then think, wait, the physical world IS real life; it’s the online world that should get the quotes! 🙂 As everyone who follows my blog knows, I love the online world. (Heck, I teach online, even!) But it is definitely the Wild West. And we thought Outer Space would be the next frontier….

  6. Tina McRorie says

    Thanks, Suki. Just to clarify, we meet in several locations throughout the Monterey Bay. This Monday’s meeting is in Santa Cruz. 10am at Pacific Cultural Center, August 24th.

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