By Julia Ratzlaff

abstinenceInternet safety can be a hot topic for parents, teachers, and those who wonder (and worry) about exactly what kids are getting into when they have unlimited access to websites and the world.

While it is easy to jump to the conclusion that kids go straight to adult websites as soon as they get the chance, it is just not always the case; sometimes it happens through an accidental click, or a pop-up ad, and sometimes they never come across things like that at all. Or they can get caught up in social media situations that are destructive and hurtful. Kids can and will find a way to websites and content we do not want them to see.

What is currently the typical policy approach to the problem? Most states, if they are discussing any kind of media use policy for schools, are focusing on technology to block inappropriate websites and searches. But if we have learned anything from ‘abstinence only’ it’s that it doesn’t work.

The problem is that there is more to worry about than just age-inappropriate sexual content on the internet. A video game with a naked woman being carried into a room by a laughing soldier—that’s wrong.  It is minimizing rape and objectifying women. We want our kids to see it that way. We don’t want them to laugh at it, brush it aside, or think this is typical or okay. People see things that are hurtful, racist, homophobic and sexist all the time, even from credible sources like CNN or The New York Times. We want them to be aware of these, to question them.

The messages kids absorb come from countless sources—gender-biased toys (girls have dolls and boys have cars), political pundits making homophobic comments or politicians commenting on the suitability of women candidates—none of which set a great example for kids. Let’s teach kids to take a critical look at these messages and think about their own values.

There is a lot of social interaction happening over the web and mobile devices. And just as we teach kids manners at the table or how to treat other with respect at home and in our communities, norms about internet use are no different. What we need is similar reaction and reasoning across the media. We need to teach children media literacy.

So please, don’t fall for abstinence only.  The better way is to push for media literacy in schools so young people can gain more awareness and become critical (and constructive) users of the media that surrounds them.

About the Author:

MLN Research Manager Julia Ratzlaff has just completed a comprehensive overview of state-level media literacy policy across the country. Here, she talks about a trend she identified.

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