The start of a new school year. A time of promise and excitement and shock at the cost of new shoes. Going back to school or going to school for the first time can be exciting and sometimes a little scary for kids and parents. In addition to the joys of peer pressure and unreasonable expectations from teachers that we all went through, our kids today also contend with a sudden avalanche of new online content, and the threats and challenges that come with it.
The start of a new school year will often find kids sharing the websites or online communities they have become used to over the summer, so kids are exposed to a lot of new online options in a short period of time. And for kids heading off to school for the first time, it’s never too early to talk about online safety. Even our youngest kids are surprisingly connected, and that can be a great thing. But it also means we need to be educating kids as early as possible about how to stay safe.
The best thing you can do is talk to your kids about what they are doing online. Encourage them to show you the funny (or usually not so funny) YouTube videos that are going around and ask them to introduce you to their online communities. You don’t need to join all their Facebook groups. They can and should have some sense of privacy, but you want to know as much about their online friends as you do about their real life friends. This goes beyond just having kids tell you when they think something is wrong. You want them to share with you the things they don’t see as a problem so you can help them develop the judgement needed online.
US-CERT put together a nice list of resources to help Parents talk with kids, https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/current-activity/2018/08/10/Back-School-Cyber-Safety. And I particularly like the Safe and Secure program, https://safeandsecureonline.org/.
You should also check out what computer classes are available at your school. Contact your local PTA or your school administrators and ask if/how computers are being integrated into classrooms, and if there is specific instruction about information technology and basic computer skills. Most middle and high schools offer classes in basic computer skills and many offer classes in things like coding or graphic design. These can be great opportunities for kids to develop some basic skills that will help them no matter what career they choose.
There is a great program called the Hour of Code. The program aims to provide every student from kindergarten though high school with a minimum of one hour of instruction in computer science. The program tries to show kids that anyone can learn to code (that’s what we geeks call making computer programs) and to spark an interest in computer science. I’ve volunteered at my kids’ elementary school the last few years and it’s amazing to watch what these little kids can learn to do in just an hour. And to see the joy on their little faces as they make a cat dance around the computer screen. You don’t need to know anything about computers yourself to help with the Hour of Code. It’s always helpful to have extra adults in the room for crowd control and you will probably learn a few things yourself. If your school doesn’t have an Hour of Code program, you can work with your PTA and your school administrators to create one.
Like everything, the key is to talk with your kids and engage with them about technology. Tech is one of the great topics where you can probably learn as much from your kids as they will learn from you.