Google's new Internet-safety program for school kids made its Florida debut recently in Cooper City. A lunchroom full of Pioneer Middle School students were shown the sometimes-complicated guide to going online and coming back in one piece.
The Internet is as much a part of school life today as three-ring binders and Dewey Decimal card catalogs were in an earlier time. The only difference: Old-time school artifacts did not moonlight as entertainment and communication media and certainly carried no risk of ruining, or even ending, young lives.
The warning delivered at Pioneer didn't go quite as far as predatory pedophiles or bully-to-the-death cyber stalkers. But the Googlers made it clear that stakes were high and the consequences for carelessness were severe.
"College admissions, summer jobs and even your spot on the sports team can be impacted by your online activity," said Jacob, one of two young company employees (Wendy was the other one) sent by Google to deliver the message.
Google's approach to the Internet dilemma is the Good to Know Roadshow, a fast-paced stage show that dishes out a multi-point safety program packaged in jokes, entertainment and audience participation. Wendy and Jacob carried on in fluent geek-speak that connected effortlessly to their audience of techy tweens.
Part one of the program concentrated on the value and necessity of strong passwords and the point was made with a contest that pitted random students against not-so-random adults such as U. S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Judged by a computer password algorithm, the students won handily, each time with an "unguessable" password of letters, numbers and symbols.
It showed they're familiar at least with the surface of the territory.
Because Facebook, Twitter and, let's just say it, Google, make it so easy to share things on the Internet, sometimes you have to learn how not to share things. And that was another major point of the Good to Know program. Keeping personal embarrassments and vulnerabilities out of the hands of strangers is, first of all, a product of knowing how to adjust hardware and software settings so your intimate stuff goes only to your circle of real friends and not to the world at large.
The Googlers illustrated that caution with a newspaper photo of a burning house where 3,000 people had answered an over-shared party invitation.
But being familiar with intricate settings tweaks is only the first part of the sharing quagmire. The other, bigger part is judgment. For a half-dressed 13-year old with a beer in her hand, knowing when not to tweet the selfie calls for wisdom and foresight that not all adults have mastered yet.
Pioneer Middle School teacher Jo McKerlie says she thinks about the kids and their Internet devices all the time. Internet worst-cases are pretty awful, she agrees, but those are qualms that should have been considered years ago.
"It’s a necessary evil but the kids use it because it is convenient and the parents want to have access to their kids at all times," she said.
A few weeks from now, Christmas morning will find a lot of new tablet computers and Internet-capable smart phones in the hands of a lot of new children. It's a lot of power to hurt themselves and others, even inadvertently. Santa Claus would probably be arrested for endangering children with those devices...but you can also use them to do homework.