Last week I was invited to talk with a group of 3rd and 4th graders, ages 9 and 10, about internet safety. I've been doing talks to various classes and groups of students for almost four years now and my approach has changed over this time. I don't focus so much on the scary stuff, like a bad person meeting you offline and abusing you. I deal more with social responsibility issues, and the importance of maintaining control over your accounts and passwords.
This particular class had 18 students in it. They live in a middle class community, so it was not strange to find that 17 of the 18 reported having the internet at home. Of this 17 students, 14 reported that they are allowed to use the internet unsupervised by an older brother or sister or by an adult. I was very surprised to discover that 7 of them have a computer in their bedroom, with unsupervised access and that many of them use webcams to talk with friends as well as relatives. Five of the students said they have Facebook accounts ... and, of course, none of them are 13 or older.
We did talk for sometime about the importance of passwords and keeping them secure. Some had stories of MSN accounts being misused (not by them, but by people they knew) to send bad messages. Some of the activities I did with them pointed out things they still do not know or understand (such as identifying a good person to be a friend on the net based on an audio or textural clue). Recognizing that there are a lot of situations that can be presented to them that don't allow them to clearly understand who they are chatting or messaging with, they just didn't get.
I was very pleased that the teacher in the class took notes during the session and has followed up with parents on some of my thoughts about how to not only be safe online, but also the importance of being socially responsible, keeping themselves from internet bullying activities, and reporting things that just don't seem to be right online.