American youth have never been more connected. The average American child now owns his or her first cellphone by age 10. Nearly half of all American teens are on Facebook, and more than eight in 10 own at least one gaming console. Shockingly, nearly one in four children under the age of five uses the Internet regularly.
The digital universe has enormous potential to expand our children's world, but it's also a minefield of legal, ethical and moral pitfalls and dangers: plagiarism, high-tech cheating, sexting, hacking, slander and illegal downloads, as well as the more risky cyberbullying, sextortion and child pornography.
Frightened and overwhelmed? Don't be. That's the message from author, attorney and computer forensics expert Frederick Lane. A former Burlington School Board chair and the father of two teenage boys, Lane has written a new book called Cybertraps for the Young. The title references an 1883 book called Traps for the Young, written by Anthony Comstock, author of the antiobscenity Comstock Act and a tireless, lifelong critic of what he saw as threats to the innocence of youth.
In Cybertraps, Lane offers parents an A-to-Z guide to educating their kids, and themselves, on becoming safe, responsible and ethical cyber-citizens. In the introduction, Lane points out the disconnect between the calcified laws designed to protect children and the digital landscape where these electronic "traps" now hide.
Lane spoke to Kids VT from New York City.
KIDS VT: What is a cybertrap, anyway?
FREDERICK LANE: A cybertrap is a legal problem that a child can get into as the result of use of an online technology, something of "hidden" nature. Each of these is a violation of policy or law. We've got kids who aren't sophisticated enough, and who are using technology without an appreciation of what the consequences could be.
KVT: At what age should cyber-education begin?
FL: There's not a "should" answer. One of the things I stress in Cybertraps for the Young is "Know thy child." Understand their maturity and comfort level with limitations and boundaries. Computer manufacturers have recognized that if you make the interface easier, then more people will use these devices. The unintended consequence of that is it's easier for kids to use them, too. So now kids get onboard much earlier than anyone ever anticipated. And these devices are tailor- made for kids: They've got flashing lights; they've got bells and whistles; they've got buttons to push.
KVT: How do parents decide when it's appropriate to buy their children digital devices?
FL: The test I recommend is, at what point are parents themselves comfortable with having frank discussions with their children about consequences? For instance, if you don't want to sit down with your 9-year-old daughter and talk about sexting, what the consequences could be of sending nude photos of herself to her friends, then it probably doesn't make sense to give her a camera phone that can do all of those things.
KVT: Your book seems like a call to action — to educate kids about respecting the power of digital communications.
FL: It's also a call to let people know that the general rules of civilized behavior apply to cellphones and the Internet as well as the real world. Parents need to think in a much more holistic way about ethics. There's a real obligation on the part of parents to say, "All of these things that we teach you about being polite, courteous, respectful and honest apply in this virtual world." Treat people the way you want to be treated. So don't bully people. It doesn't matter if it's in a chat room or a classroom.
KVT: Where should parents begin?
FL: Number one, have the ethical communications early and often. Number two, the more conversations you can have with your kids about how they're using technology, the easier it is to stay up on what they're doing. Ask them, "Have you downloaded any new apps lately?" or "What are you doing on the computer?" I realize kids will resist this, but you need to be persistent. Number three, use a little old-fashioned networking. If your kid is in a group of friends, talk to other parents about how they handle technology and find out what their kids are doing. Because if their kids are doing something, chances are your kids are, too — or they want to be.
KVT: One chapter in your book is titled "DO install surveillance software and conduct inspections of mobile devices." How do parents balance their kids' privacy with protecting their safety and well-being?
FL: Believe me, that's a concern for me, too. I wrote a whole book on privacy. But privacy is a right for adults. It's a privilege for kids. It's a safety issue, like using a knife in the kitchen or driving a car. It's also recognition that parents are incredibly busy. Most parents these days are working two, three, even four jobs to make ends meet. They need help and they can't hire someone to sit on their kids' computer and watch them all day. So for relatively little money this software can provide some peace of mind.
KVT: Should parents' approach change over time?
FL: When kids are really little, in the 6- to 9-year-old range, it makes sense to use blocking software, which keeps them off the worst sites. As they get older, I recommend switching to a monitoring approach. You don't want to stifle their exploration, but you want to know where they're going. What I said to my boys was "Look, I'm going to give you this freedom to bop around the Internet, but I will know everywhere you go. And every so often, we're going to sit down and have a conversation about the sites you visit." As you can imagine, there were a few forays into playboy.com.
KVT: Should parents limit where digital devices are used?
FL: Particularly before kids reach middle school age, the computer, Xbox or PlayStation should all be in communal spaces that parents walk through frequently. If your child is using a cell-phone, there should be an agreed-upon time when it goes into a communal basket in the parents' bedroom. One of the issues physicians are starting to see is kids with disrupted sleep patterns because they're texting until 2 or 3 a.m.
KVT: Who's teaching kids cyber-education in Vermont?
FL: It's a hodgepodge right now. Parents are just getting up to speed and a lot of parents haven't thought too deeply on this stuff. I know that schools wrestle with this from a bunch of different perspectives. The academic honesty piece is big, as is cyberbullying. And they're just now awakening to the whole sexting thing. But we really don't have a comprehensive approach.
KVT: How do you think that recent Milton sexting case was handled? The teens were sent to the juvenile reparative board rather than facing criminal charges.
FL: I think that's a really important thing to have done. If there had been malicious intent, coercion or extortion, certainly there should have been prosecution. But, the law change in Vermont that allows that discretion is good. The case underscores the need for education. It's good to use discretion and not prosecute, especially if there is follow-through from the parents.
KVT: Should parents push schools to incorporate cyber safety into their curricula?
FL: Yes! I don't think there's any question about that. Our kids are growing up in a super-connected world, and they need to be completely versed in the rules that will govern that world. There's a continuum of ideas to address across the age ranges. In the younger grades, it's a good time to talk about personal boundaries and privacy online. You discuss what you don't share: If you wouldn't be comfortable putting something up on the bulletin board for everyone to see, then you shouldn't share it online. In middle school, when talking about academic honesty, you discuss relevant electronic issues like plagiarism. As kids get older, segue to talking about students as digital citizens and what corporations and government do with your personal information.