By Ben Silliman, UW CES Family Life Specialist
If your child asked to bring an older stranger into your home, would you check out his or her background? The stranger could be a kindly neighbor, a protective brother of a friend or a role model. He or she could offer help with homework, a mature perspective on many topics of discussion or just interesting stories and learning opportunities. Then again, the stranger could have selfish intent.
Parents don’t notice anyone coming through the door after school and may miss the conversation after dinner, yet many children are making friends with strangers on the Internet. Some are "live" strangers who participate in online "chat rooms." Others create informational Web sites ranging from politics to pornography.
Like strangers in real life, most are well intentioned and helpful. So, before jumping to the conclusion that all strangers are bad guys, consider these statistics. Currently, over 50 percent of jobs require computer skills. For the next generation, over 90 percent of employers will require computer skills. Routine activities like using e-mail, searching for information and printing or downloading facts are part of school requirements and social life for pre-teens. Internet learning resources provide an expanded library to families for homework, family activities and personal interests. The efficiency of the Internet allows more time for in-depth
critical thinking on projects and assignments. Online resources can become tremendous family assets in capable hands.
At the same time, educators estimate that 50 percent of Internet sites advertised as "in-depth" provide mostly superficial information and do little to stimulate critical thinking and problem solving. Most often, kids are playing video games or exploring popular commercial Web sites rather than looking in-depth. Viewing a computer or TV screen for an hour during the school day and several hours after school can result in impaired vision and poor physical fitness.
Adults must play critical roles at home and in school by making sure that children of every age make the most of newfound technology "friends." Parents should monitor computer usage and check how much time is being spent online and what types of activities are taking place. Establish online time limits for homework and casual viewing and create a safety contract (don’t share your name with strangers, avoid violent or sexually explicit sites and ask permission before buying something). Drop in to check on activity, share together in exploration or homework research and enforce time and safety limits. Foster physical exercise, home chores, reading and conversational activities that balance and complement computer usage. Get to know your child’s school policy and plan for technology. Ask teachers and resource staff about problem solving and critical thinking skills in relation to computer usage. Parents also should read about and explore learning Web sites that might support schoolwork or personal interests. The following list is an excellent place to start.