Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Handhold kids online

Children are savvy with gadgets and technology. The way they play around with hand-held devices, wearing a geek-like air around themselves, giving one an impression that they have already set eyes on Silicon Valley, is oftentimes awe-inspiring.

While we gloat over the new-age kids’ technological sagacity, as it were, we overlook how safe they are in the world they have got access to. For, mobile phones and laptops are effectively a key to a storehouse of information, that are both serious and trivial, useful and useless, appropriate and inappropriate.

When children venture out into the physical world, there’s someone, mostly parents, to handhold them. Rarely they go too far, alone. But that’sn’t the case when they go out into the online world.   

We are in the Mother’s Day week; and here’s what the mother of a 14-year-old boy has to say: “I don’t understand what my son does with my mobile or on the desktop. He says he is downloading something, he is playing games. If I ask him too much, he will dismissively brush me aside, saying, mama you don’t know these things. I think I need to learn a lot, and give him at least an impression that I too know something!”

This is something every parent will relate to, to some extent at least. The digital divide, by way of awareness levels, is far too wide and worrisome. Results of a recent McAfee national survey on children's online behaviour are startling. 62% of the polled kids shared personal information; 58% shared their home addresses; 39% did not tell their parents about their online activities; and 12% were victims of cyber attack.

Anindita Mishra, McAfee's Cybermum, counsels parental guidance when children use internet. "That’s because the internet has evolved into a platform for self-expression and social interaction, with children indiscriminately indulging in information exchange leading to an increasing rate of cyber exploits."

Some of the ground rules offered by experts are: One, make a comparison with the offline world and educate children as to how online world could be even more dangerous. Two, handhold them; and don’t let them surf alone, because there are high chances they will stray and stumble on something that is inappropriate and distracting. Three, keep the computer in an open place where everyone can see what’s on the screen; and regulate the usage.

Parents should keep an eye on not only which websites kids visit, but also on their chat sessions. Says Mishra, “Get to know your child’s online friends as you do their school and neighbourhood friends. Learn to surf the web and chat online yourself so you understand what it is that your child is doing.”

The challenge before mothers and fathers is not as much as keeping a watch on their kids’ online activity but learning what exactly their kids are up to online.

(This article appeared in Wireless World column of The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

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