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Today's children are being called "digital natives". Children are using and understanding computers from birth while their parents are in a "catch up mode" which presents challenges that need to be faced. Malta's currently minister of Education, Cristina said:
"We are dealing with digital natives that are able to outsmart us on the keyboard.Â However this does not give us parents, educators and policy makers the right to abdicate our responsibilities of ensuring their safety and wellbeing,"
Byron Review states that the safety of children should be a fundamental concern for parents and society. "It is difficult enough to keep a balanced perspective on the safety of a child in the 'real world' - the offline space - but at least here, parents are familiar with the risks and can use their own experience to help their children learn to identify, assess and manage those risks. When it comes to understanding the digital worlds that their children inhabit many adults feel out of their depth and so either don't engage or become so anxious that they over control their child's behaviour." (Byron Review - Safer Children in a Digital World, Conclusion 9.2, P.205)
The Gallup Organisation (2008) reported that a large majority of the parents agreed that it would contribute to the proposed measures or actions to improve Internet safety and effective use of the Internet by children. Some of the proposed measures are, to organise more awareness raising campaigns about online risks or more advice for parents about the websites that children visit. Malta was one of the countries with the highest level of support for each of the proposed actions were between 65% and 79% of the parents believed each one would contribute to a safer and more effective use of the Internet for their child.
Children's access to the internet has grown rapidly. Internet is used both for educational and entertainment purposes. They use it to help with homework (in a good or bad way), to play games, to instant message, email, chatting or other activities. Bonnici, a parliamentary assistant from the Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport and Communications, said that access to the internet in Malta is a priority. 97% of Maltese children have access to the internet with 55% making use of the internet every day.
Children tend to come over dependent on games which can lead to social isolation as these are usually played alone. Some games have violent characters showing violent acts which can lead to aggressive behaviour from children. Moreover, these games can confuse reality and fantasy. For example, when children play car racing games then they may race their own vehicles in real life which can lead to accidents. Games can destroy the children's independence and creativity. I think that games should be played in moderation and that parents should limit the game playing time.
Children's ability to bully their peers is growing because of increased use of electronic and wireless information communication technologies like mobile phones, emails, and online chatting. To ensure safe surfing" and "safe computing", the X-FAQs brought two under-appreciated and under-utilized techniques. These are:
Educating children to the dangers in order to know what to avoid and what to look out for. This can be achieved both by educators and parents or guardians working together with children.
Parental supervision of a child's activities on the Internet including Web surfing, downloading, and participation in chat rooms.
Both parents and educators need to have the knowledge to be compatible to protect our children on the Internet. "Educators need to be aware of the numerous ways students are using technology so that they can watch for possible signs, and problems associated with cyber-bullying and victimization." (Tettegah,S., Betout,D. & Taylor.K).
Teachers should educate students on safety measures while surfing on the net especially when they are using e-mails, Facebook, MSN and weblogs to connect with other people. Internet, through chatting and networking applications, has become a source of socialising amongst students. A pilot project in Online Counselling for Teenage Children (2008) stated that Internet has also become a source of refuge for some experiencing social exclusion, neglect or a personal difficulty.Â I believe that in this way children are running away from reality. They are not tackling these problems or at least speaking up either to their parents or their educators about how they are feeling excluded in society. Children are using the computer to hide themselves, feel more secure and confident on the internet where no one is watching them.
During my last teaching practice I taught year 4 students. Most of them already had a facebook account. Though facebook does not allow children under 13 to open an account it is up to parents to ensure that children do not get around this by entering a false date of birth. I suppose that there is lack of filtering software used by parents to monitor internet use of minors. A Eurostat survey showed that '91% of internet users use some sort of antivirus software to protect their hardware, but only 9% of parents of children under 16 uses any sort of filtering software to protect their children.'
First and foremost, responsibility lies with the parents. Inspector Sammut from the Malta Police Force said that the Force should only be there as a "secondary source of protection". Parents must be aware of technological changes and the dangers social networking sites might present. In the past, I remember our parents used to warn us not to talk to strangers. Nowadays, it is vital to extend that advice into the virtual world. Childnet International published a document titled Chatting online and child safety - A guide for parents and carers on how to help children keep safe while chatting. The following SMART rules are presented:
Safe: do not give personal information online.
Meeting someone you have only been in touch with online can be dangerous.
Accepting emails or opening files, pictures or texts from people you don't really know or trust can lead to problems containing viruses or nasty messages and images.
Reliable: online 'friends' can be strangers, no matter how many times you have chatted with them, unless you know and trust them in the 'offline world.'
Tell parent or carer if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried.
It is essential that parents and educators educate children on what is acceptable, what will not be tolerated, and what to do if cyber-bullying does occur. Bugeja, CEO of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services said that though it is of vital importance to prevent cybercrime and to protect children, a support system for victims of cybercrime is also necessary. A help hotline has been set up on 179 where children can report abuse and gain adequate support. Reports can also be made online. She stresses the need for "empowerment of children, who should be taught of the dangers of the internet and the appropriate course of action to be taken in the event of cybercrime."
Not all web pages and content on the Internet are suitable for children. In order to fight against illegal content, the Safer Internet Programme finances projects that aim at increasing the efficiency of the existing filtering and monitoring software, as well as at increasing new ways of labelling content.
"Currently the Safer Internet Programme is funding the SIP-BENCH II project for benchmarking of filtering tools and services. The purpose of this study is to help end users, notably parents and child carers, to choose the most appropriate parental control tool that best fits their needs. This will be done by means of an expert assessment of products, tools and services that allow users to control children's access to inappropriate content online."
There are companies that offer internet filtering and blocking software especially to parents or guardians to protect their children from harmful content. Although such software exists, parents and teachers should still educate children about the dangers of the Internet and what they should not do while on the Internet, since no filtering software can be considered infallible.
BeSmartOnline! Project was launched this week, 16th February 2011, by the Malta Communications Authority. It brings together entities such as Agenzija Appogg, the Office of the Commissioner for Children, the Directorate for Educational Services, the Secretariat for Catholic Education, and the Malta Police Force in order to work towards raising awareness and educating children, carers and educators on the safer use of the Internet. 'An education campaign through the media, in all schools, and public events will be targeting children, parents and educators. A National Advisory Board has already been set up and will be facilitating discussion with all local stakeholders including NGOs, governmental agencies and private organisations. The initiative is supported by the www.besmartonline.org.mt website. The project is co-financed by the Safer Internet Programme of the European Union and the centre will form part of INSAFE, the European network of Awareness Centres.'
It is of highly importance that parents and educators ensure children gain from a safe online experience. This is possible if we stay in touch with what children are doing on the internet by spending some time showing an interest in what they're doing.