Internet safety: do kids really know what's going on?

You would think that the current generation of young kids would have a fairly good understanding of how the internet works and how it functions as a social environment. After all, kids today have been logged-on for most of their lives, and it seems that they are on the web almost all the time. It turns out, however, that their understanding is not what we would expect and that their experience alone is not sufficient to insure that they will be able to remain safe on the web.

Writing in the journal Developmental Psychology (September 2006), Professor Zheng Yan of the State University of New York described a series of studies concerned not so much with how much children understand, but with how they come to learn about the the complexities of the internet. Dr. Yan focused on factors that influence children's learning about the internet.

An important distinction highlighted in the article is the difference between understanding the technical complexities of the internet and understanding the social complexities. To be safe on the net, kids probably need to understand both perspectives.

On the technical side, there are questions about whether kids know that their home computer could be hooked up to computers anywhere in the world, or that the identities of those who communicate with them might be disguised. Do they know how much information they send out everytime a web page is delivered to their screen? Do they know that hackers might be able to track their activities or that "cookies" are not just something you eat with milk?

On the social side, there are questions about whether kids know that they might not be communicating with the type of people with whom they would ordinarily feel safe, or that there are people out there who might be trying to take advantage of them. Do they know that the email that seems to come from the maker of their favorite breakfast cereal might actually have come from a predator or a thief from far away? Do they know that when they answer a survey, they might be giving up information about themselves that can later be used to target them? Do kids really understand the implications of the fact that "on the internet, no one really knows that you're a dog?"

What Dr. Yan found is that the length of time a child has been using the internet does not really serve to increase their knowledge about either the technical or the social aspects of the web. The frequency of internet use does not provide for much improvement in their technical understanding, but it does help some with respect to their understanding of the social threats and complexities. Instruction about the web, even if provided informally, also helps children understand the social dynamics of internet use. With younger children, however, instruction does not help as much as we might expect.

By and large, the most important factor in how well kids understand the complexities and dangers of the internet is simply their age. In other words, as children mature, they become more aware, just as in every other aspect of their lives. By the time they reach early adolescence (7th or 8th grade), they should generally be capable of understanding internet dangers as well as a typical adult might, which is not to say that they actually do understand. The prevalence of internet scams is ample proof that many adults remain just as vulnerable as many teenagers.

Dr. Yan did not intend his work to provide a prescription, but instead, to provide a way of looking at the factors involved. What can be suggested from his work is that telling younger kids to be careful is probably not going to provide the measure of safety that parents would like to see. Before adolescence, kids should be monitored and observed, and parents should be involved. In the teenage years, it should not be expected that children will be safe, just because they have been at it for a long time.

And at any age, the findings suggest that the more kids know about how the internet works at a technical level, the more capable they will be at recognizing the social threats - the ways in which they might be used or manipulated. Social maturity proves to be the most important factor in keeping kids safe on the net. And as we all know, during the teenage years, kids do not really have the social sophistication and social maturity to fend for themselves in the absence of parental judgment and involvement.

copyright, paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.