Stephanie Borg Psaila   25 Oct 2011   Internet Governance

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It’s the first time I’ve come across it, and it’s so true: the use of social networks has become a necessary life skill, especially for children.

I’m quoting a blog post from Forbes, which talks about what one school (the School at Columbia University) did to teach these new life skills to its children. It created a private social network site exclusively for children, where they can learn about what’s appropriate and what’s harmful on social media.

The aim? ‘We give them a walled garden to experiment in, since they’ll be using social networks for the rest of their life,’ the school’s director of communications technology is quoted as saying.

This protective bubble is a great way of teaching youngsters the pros and cons. I wonder whether other schools have thought of doing the same.

Despite the valuable lessons in digital literacy, there are still some issues which a private network may fail to address, and which need to be supplemented by other means:

  1. Kids are more likely to get into trouble when they’re unattended or unsupervised. Yet, how many parents allow their kids to have a computer in their bedroom, and do not bother to check what their little ones are up to online? The fact that ‘parents don’t get independent access to the network – they have to log on with their children to see what’s going on’, is based on a crucial precondition: that parents realise they need to keep an eye on their kids, no matter how well-behaved they seem to be while at their computer desks.
  2. Many parents underestimate their children’s tech abilities (yes, some of them know how to manoeuvre a firewall), and over-rate their children’s naivety. Children are growing up at a faster rate than their parents did. Through television, the Internet, and their peers, they are more exposed to elements that rob them of their innocence; sometimes, without their parents realising it.
  3. In households where the parents still think a mouse can only be a rodent (while their child has learned how to dismantle and assemble a computer in minutes), parents are obviously not in a position to teach their kids the advantages and threats of the online world. Thankfully, there are many teachers across the globe who are spending a lot of time educating children about the Internet and social media. Yet, this doesn’t exonerate parents from their responsibility. Nor does it make it less essential for parents to start approaching the world of ICTs and Internet.
  4. Although the aim of such private networks is to educate children, their protective shield means that there is one test which a child won’t be prepared enough to undergo: the real criminal. Actual threats, such as social media phishing hazards, are increasingly becoming complex enough to easily trick adults … so where does that leave our children?

If a child is too young to understand the difference between ‘followers’ and ‘friends’, and what’s appropriate and harmful, is it maybe just too early to allow that child to be on a social network?

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