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Friday, October 01, 2004

“Playing Hopscotch in a Minefield?”

There is no doubt that today’s home computers are a powerful educational resource, as well as pretty nifty toys. But, as with all power, computers and especially computers connected to the Internet must be wielded with an educated, thoughtful hand, or the potential for extreme corruption exists.

The following are a few pitfalls that everyone and especially parents and those responsible for educating the first generations of Internet enabled youth should be aware of.

#1 – Browsing the Web, aka “Surfing”.

With the ability to access pretty much the sum of all human knowledge, “The Web” presents the most amazing educational resource ever imagined and as such, it also present the greatest, although sometime subtle, potential dangers.

Some of these pitfalls are obvious, armed with a search engine like Google, it is possible for our youth to find any amount of wildly explicit material. And while there are software safeguards that can be invested in, there is no solution that is guaranteed to be 100% effective. Leaving the only viable resolution in the realm of education and the passing on of deeper morality, lessons that unfortunately may leave the toughest parent cringing.

Education through the web also takes on harder to define issues when it comes to mischievous and potentially dangerous information. Again, some information is obvious, do you really want your son or daughter to know how to construct explosives? And again, some is not so obvious, such as general information on computer security. In fact, there is an entire culture, which is derogatorily dubbed “script kiddies” by true computer experts, who are devoted to collecting and exploiting information about computer security that they truly don’t understand. It’s hard to define how dangerous wielding this kind of information is. Let’s just say that it is analogous to letting your son or daughter run loose in a room full of running power tools without any supervision. Where the ultimate result can be as striking as a knock on your front door from the RCMP, as opposed to simply losing a limb.

#2 – “File Sharing”

Sharing files over the Internet is an activity that is specifically targeted at and marketed to young people. Sharing files sounds quite friendly and rather harmless initially, but is actually an activity that stands on precarious moral ground and is once again potentially dangerous to the proper functioning of your computer, and thusly your pocketbook.

I have written about the potential dangers of programs such as Kazaa and I-Mesh when it comes to infecting your computer with spyware and viruses in the past. Since that time, these programs have become even more dangerous, with more aggressive spyware inclusions and viruses, such as “Bagle”, which specifically target and spread over file sharing networks.

It is also important to consider what kind of files are being “shared”. Most of the time these files are actually copyrighted materials and while the Canadian Justice System currently specifies that downloading copyrighted music is legal, the morality of such downloading is certainly questionable. How many people would walk through the local variety store and pick items off the back shelves and put them into their pockets without paying, just because they know that they can get away with it?

Perhaps your daughter dreams of becoming the next Shania Twain, take a moment to think about which activity may potentially provide them the skills required to achieve such a dream. Sitting at a computer day after day, downloading as many songs as they like, without restriction and for free or working at a part time job to earn enough money to purchase their favourite CDs.

It would certainly be hypocritical to dictate any morality on this issue, other than to say that any person that has been given something for free has trouble truly appreciate its value.

Also, sharing other kinds of files, such as copyrighted computer programs is most certainly not legal. In the long run, it is still cheaper to purchase that new office software, as opposed to paying the legal fees to fight the extradition sought by the FBI against your son or daughter.

#3 – “I know how to do that Dad, my friend showed me how”

This is a syndrome that computer professionals, such as myself, run into constantly, as today’s youth become more and more educated in the ways of computer technology. And while it is wonderful to see education booming, it also creates situations that strike parents in the pocketbook more often than not. The problem, as best as it can be defined, is that a general, yet incomplete computer education, creates children that can be defined as “knowing just enough to be dangerous”.

That is, that while they possess a general understanding of how computers work, they aren’t often educated in the deeper operations of computers, nor the subtleties required to repair a malfunctioning computer. In general, this leads to attempted repairs that often do more harm than good.

Perhaps worse, is actually letting your child’s friends work on your computer. I mean, you may have saved a few bucks getting your son’s buddy to hook up your new wireless router, instead of a trained professional. But do you realize that you are now unintentionally (or worse, intentionally) providing highspeed Internet access to all your neighbours, including the script kiddie across the street that thinks he can impress his buddies by attempting to break into the CSIS computer network?

Think long and hard about how you are going to explain things to men in dark suits sitting across from you in the interrogation chamber.

#4 – “Instant Messaging and Chat Programs” (IRC, MSN, Yahoo!, AIM, ICQ)

One of the few certainties in our reality is that all of reality is relative and nothing is truly certain. While the Internet is an amazing resource, it is also an amazingly dazzling illusion, nothing read online and no person talked to online can ever be believed to be 100% true or honest.

It’s a simple fact, there are sick and disturbed people in our world that have no desire beyond exploiting our children’s and our trust. And it is unfortunate to realize that the Internet has provided these people with a direct line into our homes and has given them the ultimate to disguise for potential abuse.

While it is certainly possible to find and make amazing friends over the Internet and speak with them on a regular basis, using instant messengers and even see past certain societal illusions to make even deeper connections. It is also possible to deceive, lie and manipulate feelings just as easily, in fact, for some people it’s a form or entertainment to meet and tell wild lies to people via online chatting.

While it’s somewhat easier for adults to see through this kind of deception, in theory at least who would honestly develop feelings for a person whose eyes they have never looked into in person? It is nowhere as near easy for children who are just looking for attention and acceptance to be as easily discriminating.

Today’s headlines are ripe with stories related to young girls being lured into all kinds of dangerous situations via the Internet. While these tales may seem like sensationalism, I have personally run into several situations with friends and their families that curdle my blood and they don’t even involve my own offspring. It is hard to imagine the situations faced by today’s parents when it comes to these dangers and in the end, it certainly is a reality that must not be ignored.

# 5 “Online Gaming”

There’s a reason that Sony’s Everquest massive multi-player online game is known as “Evercrack”, it is designed to be highly addictive, how else would they keep raking in money from monthly subscription fees if it wasn’t?

While there is nothing wrong with computer gaming, both online and off, as a form of relaxation and entertainment in limited doses, lines are often crossed with this kind of game. Offering little in the way of real content and relying heavily on repetitive goals and tasks, combined with a sort of artificial peer pressure, these online worlds drain wallets and can relinquish “users” of thousands of hours. Which could perhaps be put to better use accomplishing tasks and activities in the real world, especially with our short summers. Remember when you were a kid and used to play outside or had a summer job that provided you with a bit of experience regarding real life?

Philosophers have said that the pen was mightier than the sword. If we think of personal computers as the ultimate evolution of the written word, then it can be postulated that the Internet, in allowing computers to make the evolutionary jump to “information technology”, has granted our pens the power of H-bombs. The duck of cover mentality of the past has always been insufficient in the face of such a force, leaving the only viable protections education, understanding and awareness.

posted by Kusari 9:31 PM

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