Parents need to teach pre-school children to use the internet safely

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Pre-school children should learn to get to grips with technology and its problems, argues David Harley, ESET Senior Research Fellow.

Under-fives already use the internet regularly – a survey of 1,100 mothers on Netmums this found that one in eight (12.8%) said that their son or daughter was two years old or younger when they were first allowed to go online.

But the key is a “gentle, guided introduction”, says Harley.

Writing for the security firm SafeSoundFamily, Harley argues that “there are already too many people terrified to use computers”, and that teaching children about technology is not something that can be left to schools. Other security experts also offer safety tips for children in the piece, including the executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, Michael Kaiser.

“In ‘Howards End’, Margaret Schlegel quotes her father as saying ‘It’s better to be fooled than to be suspicious’”and explains that ‘the confidence trick is the work of man, but the want-of-confidence trick is the work of the devil,”” Harley writes.

“Forster was capable of considerable foresight: ‘The Machine Stops’ – written in 1909 – suggests that he would have been no more surprised at modern communications and information-sharing technologies – the Internet, if you like – than H.G. Wells. But if he had experienced the real, present-day Internet and social media, I think his heroine’s thoughts might have been a little more pragmatic. Trust in the fundamental goodness of the human spirit is a fine principle, but scepticism is a better survival characteristic in a hostile environment. And make no mistake, the Internet’s potential for anonymity and pseudonymity make it an environment where much more than money may be at risk.”

“Should you therefore teach your children paranoia? Of course not: there are already too many people terrified to use computers and/or the internet because they don’t know who or what to trust.”

“What I’m suggesting is much more difficult: to teach them to trust their own judgement rather than rely entirely on technical solutions and conflicting ‘official’ information resources. That sounds simple enough, but you also have to help direct them towards strategies for developing sound analysis and judgement, what educationalists call critical thinking. But it’s too critical a task to leave to educationalists: helping your children to help them themselves starts way before nursery school. The Wild West analogue that is the Internet is in many respects as lawless as any frontier settlement, but its outlaws enjoy the possibility of anonymity and pseudonymity that the blackhats of the Old West could never have dreamed of.”

While I don’t advocate giving babes in arms immediate and unrestricted access to the cyberfrontier, it’s worth trying to give children a gentle, guided introduction: encourage them to try things, ask questions, and engage in constructive dialog: “It says here that…. do you think that’s really true?”

“And there, of course, is the catch. Think of yourself as an educationalist, and like any competent teacher, make sure you’re learning enough yourself to earn your child’s trust as a teacher. It’s not about being the font of all knowledge: they will learn much more if, when you run into a problem, you tackle it together. Even now, many parents are still content to assume that their children are – even at an early age – more competent with computers and software than they are themselves. Even if this is sometimes true, as an adult you are much better equipped to apply your coping experience of the less salubrious aspects of life in general to online life. Don’t confuse technical grasp with coping.”

Author Rob Waugh, We Live Security

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