Nan Austin

Rules for the cyberspace sandbox: A common-sense primer

Digital citizenship – the training aiming to bring safety and civility to cyberspace – has arrived. It has its own week.

Oct. 18-24 has been designated Digital Citizenship Week. To kick it off, Common Sense Media has a pretty irresistible campaign: #HaveTheTalk.

“You don’t want kids learning about the birds and the bees on the playground. And when it comes to navigating social media, online games, smartphones and the Internet, it’s best for kids to get their info from a trusted source,” comments the introduction.

It goes on to say that 92 percent of teens go online daily and nearly 3 in 4 kids age 8 or younger use apps, which is why “having The Talk is an essential rite of passage.”

Common Sense Media is a nonprofit best known initially for its family-style movie reviews. When video games came in, it expanded to talk about them and give parents tips on what to watch out for. These days, its website,, takes on cyberbullying, technology in education, kids apps, and even has a Spanish section. Its information sorts by age as well as topic.

The Digital Citizenship Week promotion does not disappear down the rabbit holes of the tech world, but stays up at the 30,000-foot level talking about lessons every parent will recognize from other contexts. For details, there are sections with research available.

The five components of The Talk:

The first one is an updated take on the Golden Rule – be nice to others. The essence is to counter online anonymity. “Remember, there’s someone else on the other side of the screen,” the website sums it up.

The second section focuses on safety, how kids can avoid leading a bad guy back to them. Stranger danger gets harder when the stranger can talk invitingly through walls. The site offers tips for younger kids, including don’t share your school name, and older kids, such as don’t give your passwords to friends or send photos to strangers.

The third component urges using the same skeptical reasoning anyone would for pitches and productions in print or in person. Grown-ups have a tough time with this one, as anyone on Facebook knows. Training our kids to be better at spotting the ridiculous is a good thing. The Common Sense Media suggestions are to pose this to younger kids as being a detective, and tell older kids to use reputable sources and watch for red flags.

This section also extends to understanding that online people may not be who they claim to be. My “Aha!” moment on this was meeting middle-aged cops who regularly pose as little girls online to catch perverts – that’s an image that sticks with you.

The fourth section talks to prevention. Use privacy settings and think before you post, or re-post, is the message. We all could do with a little less snark in our lives, but the point goes to the genie-out-of-the-bottle nature of the Internet. Kids need to understand how a furious rant, cruel lie or secret photo shared can haunt them.

This is the anti-bullying part. It is so much easier to say nothing when someone is being picked on in person. Online bullying multiplies that sense of being outside the ring, which is why it is even more important for kids to stand up for each other. But younger kids need a plan on how to do that, and older kids need to think through how to be effective.

There are other topics that could also be part of the discussion, such as the violence in video games and the way many portray women as hypersexy, or that copyrights matter online as well and that cut-and-paste is still copying someone else’s paper.

Technology is yet another thing parents have to figure out well enough to give guidance, and the Common Sense Campaign at least gives you some Cliffs Notes.