Teach kids about the more subtle dangers of cyberspace, advises US expert

The online world dangers extend much further than exposure to adult content

Online safety for children and young people requires an integrated approach when it comes to the teaching curriculum, says Michael Berson of the University of South Florida.

It’s not enough to spout a series of messages at the beginning of term about what not to do online and then say no more for the rest of the year, says Berson, who is Associate Professor of Social Science Education at the university.

Young people should be continuously taught about being a good citizen of the online world and a critical user of the technology.

Berson and his wife Ilene were guest speakers at Netsafe’s Cybersafety and Security symposium, which was recently held in Wellington.

The dangers of the online world extend much further than exposure to adult content, Berson says.

“We rarely talk about that. We talk a lot about misinformation, about hate sites [and] defamatory material”.

He also talks about the attitudes that lie behind all this; and says we need to teach young people how to tell fact from fantasy.

These kinds of lessons can be disseminated through a wide variety of subjects, from media courses to those concerned with the statistical analysis of information, says Berson.

As an example, he discussed two online picture captions concerning behaviour during the Hurricane Katrina floods in New Orleans. In one picture a couple was shown having “found” a supply of food; in the other they were shown as having “looted” food. There is ample scope there for discussing the way a neutral scene can be slanted and encouraging sceptical evaluation, says Berson.

He also advises showing young people how images can be constructed and modified. Such discussions impart both valuable knowledge and give students a sense of empowerment he says.

He pointed out that “fear tactics don’t work on kids”. Given a rule, they may observe the letter of the law, so to speak, but fail to change their behaviour where it matters. Berson cited the example of a girl clearly concerned about giving her age, saying on a “social networking” website that she was 99. But she acknowledged she attended a particular high school.

Often curriculum material leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes teachers, working under pressure of time, also make unwise choices even with good material, says Berson.

There may be a coherent curriculum in use, but the teacher will choose one isolated unit because it makes a point. But, without proper context, it may achieve little and could even be counter-productive, says Berson.

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