McAfee’s Digital Divide Survey : Parents in The Dark

It’s no surprise to read in McAfee’s Digital Dividesurvey that teenagers are hoodwinking their parents, that’s unlikely to stop any time soon. The difference for teenagers now though, is the internet never forgets. The ten percent of teenagers surveyed who posted an embarrassing photo, or the twelve percent who used foul language may have a long time to reflect on their embarrassment. And that embarrassment could follow them to a new school, college or job. Online, the world is watching and you can be judged by your past behaviour for a lifetime.

Digital learning initiatives like tablets in schools and emerging MOOCs, Massive Online Open Courses are transforming education and the potential for learning so it’s disturbing to read in McAfee’s survey that a third of parents have resorted to taking away their teens mobile devices or computers, counter-productive in the extreme. Neither is avoidance the answer. Parents appear to be in denial and exhibiting a trust that was not granted to my generation and platitudes from teenagers should be treated cautiously as half of teenagers are doing things online that their parents would not approve of.

When I was a student Civics was taught to imbue good citizenship but as we transition to a society with a growing population of digital natives there is a greater need for good digital citizenship, I would suggest even a dedicated course, ideally in the Junior Cycle curriculum. We don’t just need to teach children how to write apps and study using digital technology, we need to teach them how to be safe and sensible, and how what they say and do online can impact themselves and others emotionally, socially and even professionally. Parents must accept responsibility for the development of their children as digital citizens by providing supervision and taking an active, but unobtrusive, part in their children’s online lives. I’m not suggesting a digital version of peeking in the teenage diary, but parents generally, are interested in who their children are friends with and where they are after dark, and they should be interested in what their children are doing online. Installing monitoring software on a child’s computer would be a step too far and may even hinder the development of a teenager’s technical ability, but open discussion in the classroom and at home brings a sense of reality to digital life that is often lacking in the consciousness of teenagers who treat so much of online interaction in a way akin to playing a video game, allowing them to dissociate themselves from offensive behavior, sometimes with tragic outcomes.

Good initiatives like McAfee’s Online Safety for Kids are a great start, but there’s some distance to go and the school curriculum and parents must be part of the answer to the development of the teenage digital native. Human nature being what it is, teenagers will behave better when you keep an eye on them, because they know you’re watching, and their parents should be watching, because the rest of the internet is.

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