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Are the kids alright online?

2012-02-02

The lives of many countries〞 youth revolve around mobile phones and computers. But how can we protect kids from the dangerous side of the net while allowing them access to the benefits of the online world?

    March 2011

By Helen Dalley

Life without access to the internet would be unthinkable for most young Asians. Much like their counterparts around the world, it forms an inescapable part of their day-to-day routines: they communicate with friends and family via instant messenger services like MSN and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and entertain themselves by playing online games and watching videos. And more and more, their teachers are utilising this vast resource in the classroom.

In the two decades or so since Internet usage became widespread, this revolutionary tool has become invaluable for kids. Recent research from Synovate found that it was cited as the best entertainment pastime by 42% of young Asian respondents (ages 8 to 24) compared to 40% for TV. Almost half are planning to use the Internet even more in the future. In addition, almost one in three respondents claimed that they “couldn’t live without” the Internet. Another recent study, ‘Tapping into the hearts, minds and mobiles of 8 to 24 year olds across Asia’, revealed that, on average, 14 hours of young Asians’ days are taken up with media and entertainment, with the internet (2.7 hours) coming second only to TV (4.3 hours).

With an increasing number of young Asians logging on – Internet access among those aged 8-14 is at 61% – the Internet is nigh-on impossible to live without, but it’s not without its pitfalls. With an unprotected computer and an insufficient set of rules and guidelines, the amount of questionable, harmful material that children can access is staggering, not to mention the dangers that come from unscrupulous netizens.

So how can we protect children from the unpleasant individuals and improper materials that lurk online? For some, technological solutions like filtering tool NetNanny are the answer. Others argue that it’s the parents’ responsibility to monitor what their children access online. “Education is vital – particularly with young students,” says Dawn Strachan, who teaches Biology at a Hong Kong international school. Stressing that “awareness of the dangers, exposing them to the consequences and allowing them to understand that there are people out there wishing to exploit them,” is key, she says.

Ariel Chan, a Maths teacher for grade 9-11 students at Hong Kong Academy, is only too aware of the problems generated by internet usage. “Like many schools, each of our pupils has a laptop, and they’re always on it.”

Copying essays, as well as accessing inappropriate websites remains an issue despite the school’s best efforts to curtail the problem. “Like many schools, we use a plagiarism detection service called Turnitin, which checks the originality of the work and encourages students to reference any material they have used properly,” Chan says. “If we find that 80% of the work is copied, we do take action, and students can be put on probation or even expelled.”

Chan says Turnitin, which her school has been using for the past two or three years, has certainly helped reduce copying, but there are other problems with the internet.

Cyberbullying from classmates and unwanted communications from people met in chat rooms remain two serious threats in addition to plagiarism. Sites such as MySpace have addressed the issue of online harassment of minors via policy changes that include acknowledging consumer reports of abuse within 24 hours, giving parents the right to submit children’s email addresses to the site for blocking and automatically making a greater number of profiles private. Chan adds that she is able to monitor what the students are viewing by using VPN, which enables her to pull up any of the content on students’ screens simultaneously.

Another major problem is controlling what children can access online, and while software such as Webwatcher enables parents to monitor all internet and PC usage and iShield blocks pornography in web browsers, it’s still an ongoing battle for most to continually monitor what their kids see and hear online.

Of course, as with many problems, the solution is probably a combination of technological and adult intervention, and perhaps it is time that teachers and parents pull together and work towards smarter use of the web. “Parents must play a more active role – they leave too much to the school,” Strachan says. “Like most issues, parents need to make rules for the internet and give their children guidelines to what is an acceptable usage of time.”

It is an inevitable consequence of our connected lifestyles, and one that we need to deal with appropriately. “We’ve given students the Internet,” Chan says. ”So we need to teach them how to use it with respect.”
 

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