Open education child's best cyber defense

I have a soon-to-be six-year-old Jack Russell Terrier that has a habit of barking at almost every dog we paw past during our walks around my estate. Needless to say, it's an embarrassment each time she does that, and my family would inevitably look away--denying any relation to me or my canine--whenever a barking frenzy starts.

But, rather than tug at her collar and hide her from public view, I continue to expose her to as many canine breeds as possible--whilst, of course, protecting her from possible physical harm from dogs which jaws are bigger than her head.

I do so with the hope that she'll one day accept the fact that there are other breeds of her kind out there, and eventually, learn to co-exist harmoniously with all breeds--including those with butts that smell funny.

How is this seemingly mundane fragment of my life relevant to the topic on education? I'll explain...

I attended a briefing yesterday, hosted by the Association of Telecommunications Industry of Singapore (ATIS), and held to observe World Telecommunications and Information Society Day, which is celebrated on May 17 annually. This year's theme centered on protecting children in cyberspace, and in his keynote, ATIS President John Shazell touched on the increasing risks children today face when they venture into the World Wide Web.

Shazell cited several worrying statistics that he culled from various sources. Every year, one in five children will be targeted by a predator or pedophile. Three in four children online are willing to share personal information about themselves and their family in exchange for goods and services. Over 60 percent of children and teenagers talk in chatrooms each day, and 34 percent of children say they are smart enough to know how to circumvent parental control tools used to restrict their online activities.

Most troubling, 30 percent of teenage girls say they've been sexually harassed in a chatroom but only 7 percent tell their parents for fear their online access will be restricted. In China, 44 percent of children said they had been approached online by strangers, and 41 percent had talked to an online stranger about sex, or something that made them uncomfortable.

Pornography, violence, online fraud, cyber bullying and racism--these are some of the risks youngsters today face when they surf the Web, Shazell said. And one of the things parents can do to protect their children is education, he said. "We need to recognize the important function performed by the mass media, and ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources. Recognize the right of the child to education."

I would add, too, that the kind of education provided to the kids is just as important.

If you weren't living under a rock in Singapore, you would be well-aware of the controversy that had been brewing over the past few weeks involving a women's group. I won't discuss the details here--the debate is already a hot watercooler topic without any additional contribution from me--but one of the several fringe issues that emerged from the controversy revolved around a sex education program.

The main issue of contention here focuses on how some teachings espoused in the curriculum, which is run in local schools, were deemed to be out of sync with some parents' personal and religious beliefs. Several parents asked if they could pull their children out of these classes should such teachings continue to be included in the sex education program, because it went against their core family values.

I read the deluge of feedback and criticism from these "concerned parents", and I understand why they feel the need to be anxious. However, they will be doing their young ones a great disservice if they pulled their children out every time a class includes doctrine that goes against their personal beliefs.

Think about what would happen if an IT lecturer who favors a certain programming language over another, so chooses not to teach his students the latter because he personally deems it less important.

His personal beliefs would have spawned a class with intimate knowledge of a programming platform that may not necessarily be relevant in the real business world. His students would also be robbed of the opportunity to understand and learn from any sound fundamentals other programming languages may have to offer.

I'm not saying parents should refrain from passing on their family values and personal beliefs to their own children. In fact, I think parents--alongside schools, governments and the media--play a vital role in guiding and providing young minds all the information they need to make well-informed, value-based life decisions.

But, I strongly urge all parents to adopt an open mind and allow their children to uncover varying beliefs and viewpoints, and to then trust their offspring to make responsible life choices based on the myriad of ideas and value systems that they've been exposed to.

The best education parents can offer their offspring is one based on openness. Show your children all the colors the world reflects, including the ones you may not necessarily approve of, and then allow your young ones to decide which colors they'll eventually want to wear in their lifetime.

The advent of the Internet offers a reality that's not always easy to deal with, but it is a reality that reflects the diverse world for what it is today--one that children will increasingly have to face and learn to deal with. And a child's best form of defense against cyber threats is one of open education.

Protect your children from risks that pose physical harm, but trust them to make their own life decisions that they will have to be responsible for as individuals.

An environment that encourages open education can help nurture a generation with the freest, and most well-informed, young minds. And only then can the best innovation and creativity emerge.

And maybe one day, my little bitch will also recognize the importance of having an open mind.