Online Safety and Critical Thinking: The lessons children learn on the Internet today could save their lives tomorrow
By Lawrence J. Magid (

Lots of people have written about child safety on the Internet and weighed in on various proposals to criminalize online pornography. And there have been plenty of articles written on the advisability of using filters in homes, schools or libraries in order to block inappropriate material from reaching the eyes of children. These issues are important and should be explored, but you rarely hear anyone talking about the positive aspects of inappropriate material on the Net.

Positive? How could it possibly be positive for kids to have to deal with smut, hateful and violent material? Well, itís hard to find anything positive to say about that type material, but I do think that the presence of inappropriate material presents a challenge for children and families that, in the long term can lead to a wiser and more secure citizenry.

OK, maybe the material itself isnít positive, but how you, as a parent, deal with dangers or inappropriate material online can send a lasting message that children can apply to all aspects of their lives.

Letís face it. While there are dangers associated with going online, the dangers are far less than many other things children will be faced with as they grow up. Whether itís looking both ways before they cross the street, buckling up even when mom or dad forget to remind them, or knowing how to say no to a stranger who approaches them on the street, kids have got to learn to be defensive in the way they approach life. This is especially true as they reach their teenage years.

Teens are the Most Vulnerable

Statistics from the Department of Justice (DOJ) are startling. Young people between the ages 12 and 15 are 85% more likely to be sexually assaulted than the population in general. Teens between 16 and 19 suffer 3 1/2 times the sexual assault rate as the general population. Teenagers, regardless of race, are also far more likely to be victimized by other forms of assault and robbery according to the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1996, about 1 out of 10 teenagers was a victim of a violent crime, according to DOJ data.

Keeping ones identify -- especially their address, phone number and full name -- private when online greatly reduced the possibility of being victimized by an online predator. But, letís put this into context. Statistically, kids are more far likely to be sexually assaulted by a family member or someone else they already know than someone they might "meet" in an Internet chat room. Yet, the skills we teach kids to remain safe on the Internet can translate to staying safe in "real life." The rules of conduct, whether focused on cyberspace or real space are basically the same.

And crime isnít even the biggest danger. Throughout their teenage years, young people are confronted with many decisions that could have a profound impact on them, but mom and dad wonít be there to say yes or no and there wonít be any filtering software to prevent them from making a costly mistake. If kids can learn early to say no when theyíre online, they might remember those   lessons when theyíre confronted with an important decision off-line.

Life Long Lessons

And it doesnít end when kids turns 18. I know plenty of adults who have gotten themselves into personal, legal or financial trouble because of decisions they made that were not in their own best interest.

The need to think critically even applies to how we conduct ourselves as citizens and in the marketplace. People cast their votes based on 30-second sound bytes rather than studying a candidateís record or make major financial decisions based on an anonymous tip, a salespersonís or brokerís recommendation or something they read on the Internet. Is that critical thinking?

There are no control programs that can shelter people from those who would try to get us to buy something, vote for someone, join a club or a cult or fall for some get rich quick scheme thatís "too good to be true." But sound judgment can go a long way.

It Starts When Theyíre Young

The way teens and adults approach these decisions is usually based on lessons they learned when they were young. But the lessons are rarely specific to the individual decision. You canít possibly prepare a person with a script that they can use to apply to every decision that theyíre ever make but you can at least strive to equip someone with the judgment skills to approach all decisions in a critical manner. Those critical thinking skills that we carry with us our entire lives are based on what we learn as children.

So, when it comes to safety on the Internet, donít limit your thinking to keeping kids away from porno and predators in chat rooms and donít fool yourself into thinking that blocking sex sites will protect them from dangers on or off-line. Those are worthwhile things to do, but in addition to being ends in themselves they are also means to an end. What kids learn about Internet safety will stick with them even when theyíre not online.

Confront the Issues

Confront the issue head on. I donít know whether itís right or wrong for you to use a filtering program in your home, but I do know that itís wrong to rely on one as your only defense against dangers on the Net. One thing I do know for sure is that the best filters donít run on computers, they run in a childís head.

Go over the "My Rules for Online Safety" ( with younger kids and "Basic Rules of Online Safety for Teens" ( with any teenagers in your family.

Most of all, talk with your kids. Ask them how they use the Internet and ask them if they can think of ways that they can stay safe. Be open, supportive and as no threatening as possible. Kids need to know that you won't overreact and take away their online privileges if they confide in you about troublesome people or material they encounter online.