Strangers Are Everywhere

Growing up as a child of the 1980s, the lessons taught by my parents and teachers have served me well: don’t get in cars with strangers, don’t take candy from strangers, and don’t talk to strangers. Apparently, life in the eighties was consumed with the idea that children should be educated on the reality of strangers!

But I recall in my young mind a stranger was someone in a long trench coat with the collar flipped up, wearing a hat, and maybe sunglasses walking down the sidewalk. Back then, I just knew that I didn’t want to end up with my face on a milk carton. To be honest, I don’t think I ever encountered someone who looked like that.

Now, as a parent myself, I find myself offering a new generation of the lessons to my own children and how to prepare them for the dangers they may encounter in the age of new media and new technology. In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we examine the differences between what my parents (and their peers) needed to teach kids to stay safe with what I (and my peers) teach to keep our kids safe.

Modern: Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship

We’ve all gotten the emails from an alleged “prince” in a faraway land who has cash he needs you to hold for some sketchy reason, but he will cut you in for helping him. Or the alleged cautionary tale of a “friend” who got lured away from an online interaction that leads to a bathtub full of ice and his or her kidneys being gone with a note to call 911 nearby.

Most of us (hopefully) wouldn’t fall for it, but it’s enough to concern a parent that the possibility could be one click away for their child.

With access to multiple social media platforms available in the palm of a child’s hand, families want to keep their children safe. The answer to doing so varies from family to family. For some families, that may be denying their child access to the internet and social media platforms until a certain age. Other families may choose to allow it under certain circumstances.

Regardless, for educators ensuring that children are using technology appropriately isn’t just best practice. It’s also required by law. In 2000, Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. It’s designed to hold schools and school districts accountable for ensuring students are shielded from harmful content by the use of internet filtering and educating students on responsible use. The way it works is that it ties federal funding to bring down the expensive cost of implementing technology in schools through the e-RATE program by ensuring compliance.

For many years, the process to ensure students stayed safe on the internet was ad hoc, with schools and school districts developing their own processes to educate students. In 2015, Common Sense Media introduced a new curriculum to support adults in teaching students how to use the internet safely. Dozens of age-appropriate lessons are available for free. At the time, the organization said the work was necessary.

“Teaching kids to think critically and behave responsibly in today’s fast-paced digital world is essential,” said Mike Lorion, General Manager of Education at Common Sense Media.

When it comes to digital citizenship it’s important to understand what it actually is.

Just like citizenship to a country comes with rights, responsibilities and privileges, so does digital citizenship. For educators, it is an important of a lesson to learn as government or civics.

Retro: Stranger Danger PSA

The rules are simple: don’t talk to strangers. It is a concept that any child who grew up in the 1980s knows by heart. This message was only reinforced with PSAs, like this one produced by the American Medical Association, airing on television.

Even McGruff the Crime Dog was in on the action:

The underlying message is a moral panic, a concept attributed to a South African criminologist named Stanley Cohen.

“Moral panic has been defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place.”  –  Scott A. Bonn Ph.D., Psychology Today

The efforts centered on raising awareness on ways in which a stranger might lure a child away from a safe location. If children became aware of the possible dangers, they could just avoid them altogether.  In homes and classrooms across America in the 1980s, it was a message that was oft-repeated.

Final Thoughts

Times have since changed. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is now urging parents to avoid even uttering the phrase “stranger danger.” Experts say that the phrase “really doesn’t fit all scenarios.” In fact, even conducting internet research on the campaign is difficult; it is as if agencies don’t want to remember the campaign even existed. No mention of it even is made on either the American Medical Association’s website or the website for McGruff the Crime Dog!

However, it doesn’t take anyone long to find information on ways to keep kids safe online. Common Sense Media even has a section for parents to help them understand what new pitfalls may be available putting kids at risk. Parenting in the age of new media technologies comes with responsibilities we may never realize existed when we first posted a birth announcement on Facebook or maybe Myspace about a decade ago. As parents, we must keep updated on the social media tools available to our children who are digital natives, having grown up in a world that has always had technology at our fingertips. Admittedly, for their digital native parents: it is work.

Like in the eighties, today’s parents understand that the best safeguards for ensuring children remain safe are to make sure we are both monitoring our children and equipping them with the tools they need to make the right choices.

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