Never cross the road alone! Always brush your teeth before bed! Never talk to strangers!
Every parent has shouted these ominous sentences at their kids more than once, and for a good reason- it is our responsibility to keep them safe from harm and sickness in the physical world. But what is becoming apparent is that this may not be enough anymore- as kids spend much of their time online they are exposed to new perils which we (as kids) were not taught to vigilant about-simply because there were none. But today? Every kid has access to the web, apps and social media. So should we teach our children about the perils of the online world? The answer is obvious. But at what age should we start and what should we actually teach? This is open for debate.
I think that starting the education at the earliest age possible is not only better but compulsory. You might think that 5 year old kids are too young to learn about the dangers of the internet, but what you need to remember is that a kids that age have about 3-4 years of experience in using connected devices, be it smartphone, tablet or laptop (and soon, wearables) under their belts, so they know all about how to operate such device without having even the slightest understanding of the potential risks associated with this way of leaving- anything from revealing their whereabouts to anonymous adults to giving dad’s credit card details can happen. So in my eyes, if we teach them how to cross the road safely, how not to touch a scolding hot oven and how to avoid talking to strangers, we can and must teach them not to do the equivalent of these things online. And we should stop there. And just like we teach them in the “real” world (for them the online world is as real as the physical one) to keep proper hygiene and behave nicely, we should do the same with the virtual world. They should be thought to which places are appropriate to hang out and which are perceived as “dirty” (not just porn sites, but even news sites should be avoided due to too-graphic depiction of violence), and they should know about netiquette- what is appropriate to say to whom (sure, most of the can’t even write, but they sure know how to “like”). Doing this will reduce the plague of cyber-bullying because kids will understand from a young age that what is forbidden to do in the classroom (insult your teacher) or during recesses (insult your peers) is also forbidden online (and on whatssapp groups).
So the education should focus on three aspects-
Safety– what is dangerous to do online- disclosing personal details, downloading apps from shady stores etc.
And never agree to meet anyone in the real world…
Hygiene– what is considered healthy online- not to post embarrassing pictures of yourself (naked selffies anyone?), not
Netiquette– how to communicate with others online in a respectable manner.
This may seem over the top and surely will take years for the educational system to adopt. Don’t wait for them, just as you won’t wait until your kid is in preschool to teach her to stay away from sharp objects. Do it as soon as they get a grasp on handling these devices. And don’t shy away from tough questions- remember, whatever you can find online they can probably too. Trusting some filtering mechanism simply won’t do anymore- as they consume so much over social networks and IM networks, and there’s no way these tools will ever be able to cover everything. The only way to protect our kids online is to instill some fear and respect in their heart and minds about the online realm- yes, watching YouTube is cool but they shouldn’t do it without adult supervision, and only mom and dad can take pictures of them and post them.
Remember, anything you do is better than doing nothing at all- which is what most parents do and all educational institutes (which simply ignore this until a much older age). Our parents also adjusted our education to accommodate new technology (microwave, VCR, cable TV etc.) we owe it to our kids to do the same.