Saturday, 16 May 2009

Parents, Children and the one-eyed monster

This used to mean watching too much television. Too much Blue Peter and Grange Hill was going to turn us all into as much part of the lounge furniture as the rather natty new velour sofa our parents had recently purchased. Now this may have come to pass, but I suspect there may be other factors that lead many of us to collapse into the sofa staring vacantly at the corner of the sitting room.

The number of devices in our homes with screens has increased dramatically since the advent of home computing and computer gaming in the 1980s. Today's children are offered a range of choices; DSI, XBOX, Playstations, PSPs, Wiis, iPods, PCs, a whole host of media streaming devices. The popular view (perhaps supported by some qualified evidence) is that this creates a temptation for young people to spend too much time in a virtual world and not enough in the real one.

The 'truth' is that the way children play and communicate is changing. This presents challenges and generates (understandable) concerns, but it also allows them to develop new skills and exchange ideas in a way that was not even conceived of, let alone possible, just a few years ago. On a recent coach trip I was impressed by the way a group of pupils were exchanging video clips that they had made at home using a variety of devices including mobile phones and PSPs. The quality of the videos was impressive and showed a high degree of creativity, tenacity (to create some of the more complex elements must have taken time) and good humour. It occurred to me that most of what they had done had grown out of their own desire to explore new technologies and to share their work with each other - surely an excellent learning experience?

But a young person's computer is not the same as having a TV in the bedroom. PCs allow people to enter and become part of your world. In any human communication there are those skilled at manipulating and exploiting others and this is where there is a lot of current concern.

This entry was supposed to just be about safe use of the Internet and offer a few useful links to some software parents could download in order to safely manage their child's Internet use at home. This has proved more difficult than I first thought it would be (hence the delay to May's blog). There are features in Vista that allow parents to set up separate accounts for their children and these can be limited. There are options within browsers to limit access to websites. These could be used to some good effect, if passwords are kept secret, but the problem is they tend to be quite crude and block perfectly legitimate browsing. There are other firewalls and Internet security packages that allow some control over access to the Internet. These often use 'whitelists' to identify acceptable sites or banned sites can be added to a 'blacklist'. The trouble is that they all take a bit of work to administer and keep up to date.

At school we use a combination of systems that draws on an Internet database of inappropriate websites and allows us to add preferred sites. Our system allows us to enable different levels of access to each room or, if necessary, each PC on the network. All of this requires management and some quite expensive hardware as well as the software.

Those that advise on 'e-Safety' place an emphasis on the way behaviours when using Internet enabled resources at home. Adults are reminded that children and young people are emotionally immature (no matter how grown up they declare themselves to be) and, as such, are vulnerable when it comes to certain online situations. We try to raise awareness of these situations at school through assemblies and social studies and, from September, will formally introduce an 'e-safety' module into the Year 7 ICT induction programme. At home parents are advised to be pro-active about what their children are using their computers for and to be aware of signs such as excessive time spent online or a sudden withdrawal from family life and increase in secretive behaviour (i.e. being a teenager). We already have links to the 'Think You Know' site from the main site, but I have added a link to this site at the end of the blog. It is worth looking at whether you have a concern or not - lots of parents who found out that their child had been manipulated by someone into doing something out of character say they had no idea anything was going on.

I have not touched on 'cyber-bullying' in this entry. That is dealt with elsewhere, but many of the issues associated with this type of online misuse are covered very well through the 'Think You Know' website.

The reality is that the benefits of the Internet and many of the devices that use it outweigh the costs, but we must not be naive about the real harm some young people can come to through the virtual environment.