This was written by Lynette Owens, director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families division.

By Lynette Owens

Two-year-old Maggie Awad plays an app game called, Icee Maker, on her mother's IPod Touch (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

 This is not bad news.  Being adept at using the Internet is in an important life skill that we all have to master to be successful, productive members of society.  We should be embracing it.  We should be teaching our kids how to do it.

We are in an interesting time in history when models of teaching and learning are being enhanced in ways not previously possible without technology.  Many schools are giving each student their own device to access information, participate in courses, do research and homework, and engage their teachers and classmates. These one-to-one educational technology models are being implemented in districts across the nation.

  It is safe to assume that our schools will most certainly be wired for improving learning and teaching, if not today, then soon.  We expect and should continue to expect that obtaining the tools of technology are not the end, but a means to helping our kids learn the skills that will propel them into jobs and careers that will later benefit themselves and society.

As a parent and youth online safety advocate, I do believe, however, that we cannot lose sight of the larger implications of allowing our kids access to the Internet as young as 5 and 6 years old.  We must also think beyond the educational benefits of doing so.  Like going out into the real world, we guide our kids about issues of safety, manners, and overall conduct.  We should do the same before they get online, and perhaps even before they get into a classroom.

 Laws like the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which most schools must comply with, already require schools to teach our kids about using the Internet safely and responsibly.  This used to mean blocking them from accessing age-inappropriate website content and telling them not to communicate with strangers.  But the most recent updates to CIPA in late 2011 by the FCC call for the inclusion of topics such as safe social networking use and cyberbullying in such curriculum.   This is a welcome change which reflects more accurately the issues that need more attention.

But I challenge the assumption that the job of teaching kids to be good citizens of the Internet is solely within the purview of schools.  Parents are most often the first to introduce kids to technology.  Kids are also able to connect online both at home and at school, but increasingly in the places in between.  This is largely driven by the rise of mobile devices in more and younger hands, without adult supervision.  So a community approach to teaching kids to think critically on their own about what they are saying, doing, and sharing online is more important than ever.

 In my own advocacy work, I often see parents providing very expensive devices to their kids, for reasons ranging from “all the other kids have it” to “they need this so I can contact them when they are walking home from school.”  But many have not given their kids the guidance to use it safely and responsibly.  To their credit, the parents I see are eager to learn how to do this, but lack the knowledge of where to turn for help.

This is where schools come in. 

Most schools already have a construct for parents to stay informed about their kids’ experiences in the classroom and engage as a community on matters that transcend the borders of a school’s walls.  This is often in the form of a PTO or PTA organization, and it is an ideal place to talk about technology and how to teach our kids to be safe and responsible with it.

In my own children’s school district, we are in the midst of a one-to-one laptop program roll-out.  This presented a great opportunity to engage parents of those students impacted by the program in an on-going conversation about digital citizenship and online safety.   We are doing this at a community level, rather than an individual school level, starting with the parents most directly impacted by the one-to-one program.  But there is no reason to wait for a massive technology undertaking to do this, and there is no one perfect way to do it either.

But it is imperative that schools and parents see this is a partnership that begins in elementary school and continues through high school, with each side reinforcing the other. 

Below are some ways that can help enforce this collaboration.  Some of this I have been fortunate enough to participate in first-hand.  Others are part of an achievable wish list:

1. Encourage parent leadership, within the PTA, PTO or other parent communities at your school to begin the discussion about safe and responsible online use by students at school and at home.  Gather an advisory group to determine how to get started.  Invite an expert guest speaker to kick things off.  Thankfully, there are many free, reputable resources available to parent communities through organizations such as Common Sense Media and through PTO Today’s Internet Safety Night program (sponsored by my organization, Trend Micro). Make it clear that it is an on-going dialogue versus a one-time event, as technology is constantly changing.

2. Communicate regularly to parent communities about how you are using technology in the classrooms, at each grade level, and how you ensure kids are learning to be savvy online citizens at the same time.  Make it part of open-house and parent-teacher nights.

3. Be clear with parents on how appropriate technology use is enforced through the school’s Code of Conduct and Acceptable Use Policies (AUP), which students (or parents) typically have to review and sign at the beginning of each school year.  Parents should understand what constitutes a transgression of the policy, how it will be handled, and how/if it will be reflected on your child’s school record.  It should also be clear how personal technology can or cannot be used on school grounds.

4. Be creative with ways to help parents and their kids use technology together.  Ultimately, schools and parents should not limit the discussion to being safe and responsible with technology. We want kids to also be successful users of it.  Find ways to use technology with families or encourage them to use it together through school-driven activities, events, fund-raisers, or other projects.  Have families research their genealogy together. Establish a blog contest or raise awareness or funds for a school activity using social media.  Or encourage family engagement in programs like the ‘What’s Your Story?’ campaign (sponsored by companies like Facebook, Trend Micro, Twitter, and Yahoo!) a program specifically designed to get youth, schools, and families talking about matters concerning the safe and responsible use of technology.

5. Recognize the positive use of technology in your schools through a formal or informal but public way.  Parents can be invited to be part of such a program, or at least encourage the right behavior with their kids at home.  Awards or acknowledgement can be given to individual students or groups of students, classrooms, or even families.  You can do this through a yearly or monthly “call out” in the school newsletter, website, or at a live school event.  If possible, showcase the activity that is being acknowledged (If it’s a blog, link to it in your online communications).

Technology can be intimidating to those of us who were introduced to it later in life.  The job of teaching kids how to use it appropriately can feel daunting when often times they seem better at it than we do.  But we cannot sidestep our obligation to make technology a tool our kids use safely and responsibly. 

And while we do not have years of documented best practices to help schools and parents through this yet, anything you do today can help.  Thankfully, there are simple, low investment ways to start today.  It just takes a willingness to embrace what is already here, and a little courage to take the first step.



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