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Internet safety for kids

As my children grow (my oldest is 10), I find myself paying more attention to the dynamics of their social circles. The fact is, kids are often just not all that nice to one another and their words and actions can do lasting damage.

My (hyper?)-sensitivity stems in part from an article I wrote in 2007 about the pervasiveness of bullying in schools. Child psychiatrist Tom Tarshis, MD - then a fellow at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, now at the Bay Area Children's Association - unleashed a storm of attention with his report that 9 out of 10 elementary students had been the victims of bullying by their peers and that 6 of 10 admitted to bullying others. It was a real wake-up call for me and many other parents.

In the three years since, we've seen an alarming number of cases of "cyberbullying," in which kids use social networking, instant messages and e-mail to attack their peers. So I read with particular interest this article in the New York Times today about the efforts of the non-partison, not-for-profit organization Common Sense Media to teach kids to realize that, although the internet may seem - late at night or alone in your room - like a private and safe forum for sharing thoughts, it's anything but. Words online have an annoying tendency to live forever, and can come back to haunt both the speaker and the recipient:

That blurred line between public and private space is what Common Sense tries to address.

"That sense of invulnerability that high school students tend to have, thinking they can control everything, before the Internet there may have been some truth to that," said Ted Brodheim, chief information officer for the New York City Department of Education. "I don't think they fully grasp that when they make some of these decisions, it's not something they can pull back from."

It's not all about bullying, either:

Common Sense's classes, based on research by Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychology and education professor, are grouped into topics he calls "ethical fault lines": identity (how do you present yourself online?); privacy (the world can see everything you write); ownership (plagiarism, reproducing creative work); credibility (legitimate sources of information); and community (interacting with others).

I'm a recent but ardent fan of Common Sense's age-rating and reviews of books, movies, games, music, television and Web sites. (Seriously, if you're a parent check it out regardless of the age of your kid. It saved me from handing my precocious 5th grader this book to read, which was in the teen section and at first looked pretty innocent. Yikes!) The idea that they're now reaching out to schools with a specific, free, curriculum to teach kids how to navigate the Internet both responsibly and safely is fantastic. I'm certainly going to be bringing it up at my children's school.

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