The Internet is an integral part of our world today. We click, plug in, surf for every aspect of our lives. Our children live and breathe the language of computers. But how much is too much for a child? What should a parent do to protect a child’s journey into cyberspace?
Meet the savviest computer security expert we know: Elizabeth Milovodov (a.k.a. the Crossing Guard) – an American lawyer and now foremost European consultant on Internet safety – showing children, parents and educators how to get the most from the Internet, safely.
Elizabeth, explain to our readers exactly what you mean when you talk about “Internet Safety for Children”? Does this mean there is a danger involved?
The Internet is a wonderful tool and I would NEVER tell your readers to not use it. It is vital for today’s child to grow up understanding how the Internet works, how to be a good digital citizen, how to reap the benefits of Internet and avoid the risks.
Like any tool – think of a kitchen knife or scissors, for example – there are dangers involved. But we teach our children from a young age how to hold a knife, how to hand scissors over to someone.
My question is: “Why are we not teaching our children how to use the Internet safely?”
You worked as a successful lawyer in the United States before moving to France. What made you come to France and why did you end up staying?
I had always loved everything about France: the language, the culture, the fashion, the history, so I finagled my way into France via an MBA program for one year and ended up stretching out the educational experience to 20 years. (I also thought I would meet a fabulous Frenchman named Pierre, but that was not to be in the cards.) I stayed in France because I felt very much at home (even with the challenges).
Today, you are regarded as one of the key European experts specializing in Internet safety for children. How did this career transformation come about for you?
Once I settled in France and finished an MBA/MA program, I found work in Paris that quickly transitioned to legal work. A French technology company in Montpellier hired me to be Assistant General Counsel: Internet and New Technologies, and that was a game-changing moment. I soon realized that I truly loved tech and Internet and everything that it represents for the future. (I must admit I love Star Wars, science fiction and I am a diehard Trekkie. Please note that the first iPad was created on Star Trek and that Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura shocked Americans with the first interracial kiss in 1968. But I digress).
In 2004, my company moved their headquarters to the U.S. and I chose to remain in France with my new husband (not Pierre, but a Russian named Sergei.) We moved back to Paris and I enrolled in a PhD program as we started our family.
My dissertation topic put me directly on the path to my current passion. I found a way to intersect the law, the Internet and my newly burgeoning passion for children’s rights as I researched the transparency of online international adoptions.
This research steered me to issues of online protection of children and as I watched my own children navigate the digital highway, I streamlined my research to protecting children as they use Internet and empowering parents as they struggle to help their children.
Tell us about your site, “Digital Parenting Coach” . What can parents take away for their children from this website and your workshops?
I have two websites: The Crossing Guard and Digital Parenting Coach. The Crossing Guard is geared towards my clients and colleagues at the Council of Europe, EUKidsOnline, UNICEF, FOSI, The Parent Zone, etc. where they can follow my consulting activities and speaking events.
Digital Parenting Coach is really for parents. As a result of my 3 years consulting in this field, I realized that parents were being overlooked. They were frustrated, overwhelmed, scared and didn’t always know where to find information, tips and resources. Digital Parenting Coach was created to meet that demand. I would urge every parent, grandparent, caregiver to hop over to the Digit@l Freebies section and download away. And if you don’t see what you need, send me an email, and I will research and post the resources. I curate like a mad woman and love reading the latest issues, trends, best practices and then SHARING THEM.
On Digital Parenting Coach, workshops and one-on-one digital parenting coaching sessions are available to parents who want to learn about the benefits and risks of Internet, social media and technology. I hold free workshops at Marymount International and the American School in Paris, and I speak to the children enrolled in those schools on Internet safety as well. These sessions are really beneficial, as I have heard the children talk about what they’re doing and then I speak with the parents. No, I don’t tattletale, but I do coach everyone – kids, parents and faculty – on best practices.
Is Internet safety a school or a parent responsibility?
That is a fantastic question and I love you for the challenge. I believe 100% that Internet safety is a parental responsibility and that parents need to step up to the plate and deliver. Just because the subject is technology does not mean that Digital Dinosaur parents do not know what to do. Regardless of their technical ability, parents need to bring their offline parenting skills online.
You handle the consequences of an online bully in the same manner as a schoolyard bully. You request that the offending action stop. You reduce contact. You speak with the school authorities/social media sites, if necessary. You talk to the child being bullied. If you’re the parent of the bully, you talk with your child. (Children who are bullies have more of a chance to be violent adults.)
If I could make another comparison, I would say that schools can cover the biology of reproduction, but as a parent, don’t you want to add your two cents about love, commitment and responsibility?
Internet safety offers the same challenge. A school can teach the technical aspects of how to use Google, how to create good passwords, and so forth, but it’s up to the parents to teach their children to be resilient, to be respectful and to be socially and emotionally solid.
Is it possible to ignore the Internet? Is it wise in this day and age to only raise a child on books, sports and arts and crafts?
Gosh, when you’re asking questions, you don’t play around. I think books, sports, arts and crafts are crucial to the well-being of children. I also think that boredom is a great teacher and stimulus. But – and this is a huge but – we live in a technological society and understanding how to use technology has become another tool, just like reading, writing and arithmetic.
But I advise that children learn those skills old-school style and later we can throw technology into the mix. The educational apps that exist today are to be used with caution and parents should check them out themselves before just downloading willy nilly.
You’re a mother of 2 beautiful young boys who must be awfully savvy on the Internet. How do you tell your kids to stop playing on the computer when the parents are hooked to their cell phones and tablettes?
Digital detoxing and screen limits are hardcore in my family. My husband and I really do try to be “better than good” digital role models – especially me, since it’s my job, for goodness sake. But you know how sometimes you see a chubby chef and you realize they have been dipping in the goodies, well I also have my tech lapses. I admit to adoring Apple and even purchased my Apple watch on Day 1 – it’s absolutely necessary to know what kids can do online with it. Right?
Are adults vulnerable as well when using the Internet?
Yes, adults can definitely be vulnerable as well. We are also seeing a growing field of Internet Safety courses being designed for senior citizens in order to protect them from online scams, false advertising, etc. I am currently writing an eBook on how to help college bound kids clean up their social media act and I have started outlining a second book focusing on seniors and their online challenges.
After 20 years living in Paris, would you say Paris is an easy or tough city to crack?
If you speak the language, immerse yourself in the culture, find a good girlfriend to share the secrets, Paris is a piece of cake. Without that, it can be quite a challenge. But if you persevere, you will eventually crack it!
Will you share with us your favorite Parisian hangout or activity?
I am such a homebody that I really try to hang out with my boys, cuddle and create memories. Everyone tells me to enjoy the little guys when they’re young, because all too soon they will have girlfriends and I will be left in the dust. I wish I could say something exciting and cool, like ice-skating in the winter in front of the Mairie or jumping on the trampolines in the Tuileries before a long walk along the Jardin or re-discovering a kid’s exhibit at the Pompidou Center or doing science experiments in Parc de la Villette or watching the boats on the Canal Saint Martin.
The truth is we actually do these things, however I much prefer to cuddle and read to them and introduce them to some of my favorite stories – The Spooky Old Tree, Harry Potter (didn’t work as they think Harry Potter is only a Lego figure), Berenstein Bears, anything.
When you find that rare moment for yourself between business and family, how does Elizabeth pamper herself?
Can I send that question to my husband?