On Digital Parenting Fear, Part #1 – What Risks Should We Worry About the Most?

When we teach and interact with digital kids about their hyper-connected lives, I wish we could de-emphasize the fear factor and re-emphasize education and understanding, helping young users become stronger digital world problem-solvers. While monitoring, learning, and guiding, we also need to be sure to help kids, develop the antennae to identify and avoid a range of online problems — not just the big ones.

fear risk

Image made at Festisite.

A day doesn’t go by without hearing an adult comment about children’s digital world risks, and invariably these conversations focus on predators, strangers, pornography, cyber-bullying and even the death of a child. In the area where I live, a grievous and tragic even is unfolding as I edit this post.

My concern as an educator is that my students, without fail, noted how important it was to be aware of the frightening situations. Their deep concern about potentially horrible Internet encounters — events that do not occur nearly as often as the mainstream media imply — obscured for many of them, the importance of many other interactive problems that happen on a daily basis to digital kids — misjudgments, miscommunications, and daily social events gone awry. It’s these problems, often the result of minor online misjudgments or typically adolescent missteps that regularly cause  public humiliation and embarrassment, and such events wreak havoc on a child’s and a family’s daily life.      

An article worth reading, Risks, Opportunities, and Realities of Children’s Internet Usage: A Few Moments With Sonia Livingstone, is posted over at the DML Central blog. The piece features an interview with Dr. Livingstone, a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) who chairs the Department of Media and Communication and whose research focuses on children’s online safety and risk. The interview covers topics such as developing digital skills, parental control of their children’s Internet activities, risk, and potential harm. While Dr. Livingstone’s research focuses on children and families in Europe, her thoughts and research results may be just as pertinent for families in the United States.

If you want to read a lot more about Dr. Livingstone’s research, check out the PDF report describing the comprehensive 25 country LSE study of more than 25,000 European children, ages 9 – 16, and their parents. Risks and Safety on the Internet is well-researched, detailed, and readable. Easy-to-read graphs are also included. The report offers parents, yes even in the United States, an accurate digital world prism through which to view the lives and activities of preadolescents and teens.

Dr Livingstone also writes regularly on her blog, Parenting for a Digital Future.

Even the most adjusted children and well-behaved students make spontaneous and wrong digital decisions — mistakes, after all, are a part of growing up. When adults de-emphasize the fear of dramatic digital encounters in kids’ lives, making an effort to learn about and better understand children’s activities while modeling carefully lived adult digital lives, the resulting environment supports young people as they build stronger knowledge foundations in the connected world. These children are likely to become better learners and evolve into more savvy digital citizens who develop skills to help them avoid potential problems — even the risky issues that adults tend to fear the most. It requires lots of parental time and energy.

While we obviously need to ensure that 21st Century preadolescents and teens know how to protect themselves from the scarier things in digital life (although many of these risks occur more frequently in non-digital life), and must help them learn from their mistakes, we should focus even more on helping today’s children grow into competent, confident, and more sophisticated users of connected resources.

N.B. The DML Central blog name is truncated for Digital Media + Learning: The Power of Participation. Hosted by the University of California system, it’s generously supported by the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

You might also want to read the second part of this series, It’s Something New and We Don’t Understand: On Digital Fear, Part II.

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