A whole new level of society
The Internet is like the world’s largest mall, says Merlyn Horton, where many
products and experiences can be found all in one place.
For a long time, parents have dropped their kids off at the mall entrance, advising
them to be careful, and then leaving them unsupervised. But Horton, founder and
executive director for Safe Online Outreach Society (SOLOS), maintains parents should be
active participants in their children’s online activities, engaging them in conversation about
online culture and communication as early as Grade 1. “As soon as they know how to use a
mouse, parents should be teaching their children what a powerful piece of equipment (the
Internet) is.” Horton adds that children and teenagers cannot be blamed for misconduct on
the Internet if there have been no ground rules or precautions. “It’s a whole new level of
society that if parents are not present in, the youth have to navigate on their own.”
In the early 2000s, danger involving the Internet was largely predator-focused. Law
enforcement and parents were concerned with those who might seek out their children and
teenagers online. Horton says that risk has now shifted, in that the concern should be with
how young people are conducting themselves online. Since the advent of Facebook and
YouTube, and with the increasing popularity of smart phones, teens are using the technology
in their pockets to socialize, construct their identity, and experiment with their sexuality.
The three most common issues parents now bring up when talking with Horton are potential
gaming addiction, the discovery of sexual content their children have sent to peers or received
from others, and online harassment.
When SOLOS was first created in 2000, collaboration with corporate businesses and the
society was low. Even those in the social system didn’t foresee the presence the Internet
would have in the lives of children and youth, finding it hard to imagine that anything intimate,
or having significant impact could occur in the absence of physical presence. “Online contact
has emotional, physical, spiritual, financial and intellectual consequences and therefore
qualifies as real,” says Horton.
SOLOS delivers presentations for parents and the public, and has recently constructed a
peer-to-peer program. Teens are trained, and then give presentations to younger grades.
It’s effective in two ways, Horton says. The students see teenagers as role models closer in
age, and therefore connect more readily with what the presenters are saying, and by speaking
about their own experiences, the risks of the Internet are further instilled with the teenagers.
When Horton asked a Grade 4 class how many students had a Facebook account, 15 to 20 per
cent raised their hands.
Horton advises parents to come from a collaborative point of view when negotiating Internet
use with their children, and accept that their kids may know more about the technology than
they do. She maintains that if parents are curious and ready to learn, they are able to instruct
their kids on important themes. “Parents have lots of life experience. It’s about how you
conduct yourself everywhere.”
For more information on SOLOS, call Horton at 604-615-7899.