Children use the computer for learning and for fun. One study conducted in Croatia showed that every second pupil used the computer and that the use of the computer depended on the gender, age, place of residence, education and employment of parents. Computers are used more by children in big cities whose both parents are employed and have an academic degree. Using the computer, children can develop their memory, methods of learning and problem solving skills, as well as their feeling of competence and self-confidence. Computer games can also motivate children with communication difficulties to associate with peers of similar interests. The child can exercise coordination eye-hand, spatial relations and representation skills. Regardless of parents’ preferences, the child will get in touch with computer technology. Computer literacy is part of school programmes and it is practically impossible not to use computers. Besides, the use of the computer has proved to induce motivation for learning, so in some cases the computer is selected for child support, e.g. for children with special needs.
The Internet is ever more attractive communication medium with a series of advantages, e.g. fast access to information including academic research and travelling opportunities, data about schools and colleges, different products and services, easy browsing through the news, connecting and communication with people, even the opportunity for fast and simple correspondence with peers and people from different parts of the world. It teaches children how to solve problems, helps the development of strategies necessary for data selection, offers opportunities for experience, opinions and information sharing with peers or people with similar interests or problems, e.g. sites of celebrities fans, automobiles or some video games fans.
In the virtual world of the Internet, all risks and dangers are not equal
It is not rare that adults attenuate the dangers a child can encounter. If the child does not say it, we are prone to thinking that children are safe. It may be difficult for adults to talk about these dangers, and sometimes adults, parents and teachers actually do not protect the child, but protect themselves from difficult issues. This is why it is important that parents are familiar with and aware of the dangers children may encounter while using the Internet. Children may come across inappropriate information including pornography, pages which instigate hatred, animosity or discrimination, gory and violent scenes, misinformation and exaggeration of the news. They can be maltreated or chased by people and often by other children who are rude, insulting or threatening. Besides, someone can send them a software virus or break into their computer. There is a risk that by filling in forms for participating in various online competitions children may reveal important personal data and become targets of various frauds. They may become victims of paedophiles or adult persons with hidden agendas who will try to coax them into a meeting or betray their trust in some other way, e.g. by publishing their photos.
It is important to bear in mind that the Internet enables anonymity which is impossible to achieve by any other means of communication. This anonymity liberates and induces people into communicating more intimately than they would do it in personal contacts. It also enables giving false identities which necessitates parents’ supervision over child’s use of the Internet. If the child tells you that s/he has made a good friend via the Internet, remind her/him that all s/he knows about that ‘friend’ is what the person has written and that none of it has to be true.
How can parents and other adults reduce risks that their children may be exposed to on the Internet?
1. First of all, it is important that the computer with an access to the Internet is placed in the living room or in the room where parents often dwell. This is the way to more easily observe the content the child comes across, and parents can get to know child’s online friends. If the parent can glance at what the child is doing on the computer, the child will more scarcely enter into a potentially risky communication with a stranger or search for explicit sexual content in the chat room.
2. It is important that parents learn elements and terminology about the Internet use. They can ask their children for help, which is an opportunity to show interest for what the child is doing, to establish communication and a relationship of trust. By showing interest and by carefully monitoring child’s activities on the Internet, parents can protect children from the risk, which, anyway, is better than simply forbid the use of the computer.
3. It is important to establish a set of rules for using the Internet, the time of use, pages to visit and agree on the consequences of child’s behaviour. In general, children will accept rules and react positively, because they will understand that parents have to take care of them and that they have who to rely on if the need should arise. It is important that parents get children involved in the rules setting process, which boosts child’s responsibility for following the agreed rules.
4. Adults, parents and teachers, can learn how to check on the sites visited by the child. It is important to openly communicate with the child in order to prevent this way of control from deteriorating the relationship of the parent or teacher with the child.
5. It is important to explain why you are checking on the sites the child is visiting. E.g. you can say ‘I am worried by the fact that some sites have contents which are inappropriate for children’, or ‘It is my responsibility and obligation to, as an adult, take care of how much time you spend on the Internet.’ Taking the responsibility of an adult in this case is similar to that when an adult is responsible for how much time children spend watching TV, reading magazines and comics, playing video games etc.
6. It is good to talk to children about secrets and about which secrets we keep. It is also important to tell children that, if they feel embarrassed or confused with something they have experienced, they can always talk with their parents or an adult whom they confide in.
7. It is possible that the child will want to meet her/his online friend. The important thing is that the child is accompanied by the parent or an adult at the first meeting with the friend, so that they can meet their child’s new friend, too. We can explain that a friend who really wants the friendship and who has honest intentions will not have anything against meeting the parent, and that it would be good if the new friend brought her/his parents, too.
8. In case there are any signs of hostile intentions in the persons getting in touch with your child, getting hold of your or your child’s personal data, threatening your child or you, ASK FOR HELP.