Friday, April 6, 2012

Dangers of the Digital Age: Kids’ Online Activities – How Much is Too Much?

The digital age has opened a whole new world for kids.  When I started to think about writing this post, I began looking at my kids’ online activities and what I found was a bit surprising.  In one afternoon I noticed my own children doing the following activities:
  • Logging into FCAT Explorer test prep and studying math facts online, like having a live-in tutor;
  • Looking up words for a homework assignment, eliminating the need to carry around or house a big dictionary;
  • Doing research for a school paper, saving me from a trip to the local library;
  • Checking email about softball practice time and uniform, saving me from making multiple phone calls;
  • Skyping with their Dad who was out of town, if he can’t be here guess it’s the next best thing and definitely better than snail mail;
  • Chatting with friends on Facebook, nothing helpful or witty here, just fun;
  • Playing games on the computer and texting friends on phones, of course a huge waste of time… Waz up? Nothin.  What r u doin? Nothin...  and so on to the tune of thousands of those types of useless exchanges monthly (thank goodness for unlimited text plans).

And it dawned on me… we live in an amazing time, a “digital age” if you will, when almost anything is possible, when almost anything is available online, and when communication is available 24/7,  instantaneously with pretty much anyone, anywhere.  But how much is too much – information, accessibility, and communication?  And how do we as parents temper access with control so the digital world remains a safe place for our children?

Constant availability, combined with instant access for children at younger and younger ages (when brain development is such that impulsive behavior is not yet regulated by controlled decision making skills), topped off with uneducated and inattentive parents, is not a good combination.  Consider the following facts available from Enough is Enough: Internet Safety 101 at

§  Internet use has become more widespread and almost 93% of children ages 12-17 have online access. (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2007
§  One in ten young people (13 %) reports having a handheld device that connects to the Internet (The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Study, March 2005).
§  Every day 77 million children use the Internet and of children ages 10-17, 1 out of 7 will be sexually solicited online. (Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. 2006. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Crimes Against Children Research Center, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. December 4, 2006.
§  Nine out of ten children between 8 and 16 have viewed pornography on the Internet. In most cases, the sex sites were accessed unintentionally when a child, often in the process of doing homework, used a seemingly innocent sounding word to search for information or pictures. (London School of Economics January 2002).
§  13% of 2nd – 3rd grade students report that they used the Internet to talk to people they do not know, 11% report having been asked to describe private things about their body, and 10% have been exposed to private things about someone else's body. (Rochester Institute of Technology, 2008).
§  One million children were harassed, threatened or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook during the past year. (Consumer Reports, 2011).
§  43% of teens aged 13 to 17 report that they have experienced some sort of cyberbullying in the past year. (Harris Interactive Trends & Tudes, 2007).
§  24% of teens ages 14-17 have been involved in "some type of naked sexting," either by cellphone or on the Internet. (The Associated Press and MTV, Sept. 2009).

So as you can see, with this information and availability comes new dangers that we as parents, and we as a society, have not had to face before.  Parents often take precautions to protect their children such as hiring sitters to stay with them while they will be away, locking doors and windows, and installing security systems, but we give our kids access to technology and think they are safe. 

Some parents, in their efforts to protect their kids from technology dangers, may do some research on easily- found websites, may install or download parental control software on their computer or follow the age old rules of placing the computer in a common location, and teach their children rules such as not giving personal information, etc…  While all good ideas, we are moving into a generation of Web 2.0 and those safety rules are quickly becoming outdated.  The problem is, parents often know less about the technology their children are using than the children do, and those rules are no longer sufficient to adequately protect their children.  Computers are not the only danger, and predators are not the only enemy. Smart phones, online games, subscription movie sites, virtual reality sites, and social networking sites are all potential sources of danger; and friends, peers and strangers all equally warrant our concern.  Smart phones are called smart for a reason… they can constantly learn new things and add to their repertoire of abilities through “apps,” meaning the technology is ever-changing and often presents new and real dangers.  And websites present dangers yet unknown to many parents as well; how many parents know about and understand sites like “Wee World?”

If we are going to give our children access to this powerful technology and software that may put them in harm’s way, we must first understand it ourselves and then teach children how to use it wisely.  In order to do that, we must become better educated.

So parents stay tuned for upcoming blog posts that will focus on what parents need to know about technology, what’s new and what technology can do, and what the real dangers are.  In the near future we will also post information about where you can learn digital safety tips and learn what’s new and cutting-edge in parental controls and filters, so make sure to subscribe to the Speak Up Be Safe Florida blog to keep getting updates.  The more informed you are, the safer your kids will be!

Written by Guest Blogger: 
Stacy Pendarvis, MSW, MA

Stacy Pendarvis of Pendarvis Consulting & Training is a former Program Manager 
for MBF with over 16 years in the child safety and child abuse prevention field.
She is a frequent guest blogger for the Speak Up Be Safe Florida blog.