Alan Simpson Talks Tech Safety for Kids

Alan Simpson is a veteran of traditional media, having cut his teeth at C-SPAN and NPR, before moving on to advocacy in the tech space with a particular focus on opportunities for children and learning. He currently works at Common Sense Media, and lives with his wife and mutt in San Francisco. This post represents his personal views, and not necessarily those of any organization.

I spend a lot of time with people working in technology, and even more time with parents and teachers who might be described as less than comfortable with technology. It’s no surprise that conversations in the startup world focus on the many opportunities and improvements created by the Internet and technology. On the other hand, when talking with parents, teachers, and policymakers, the conversation hinges not just on the upsides of technology, but also on the serious concerns many of this group have about potential downsides for children.

Many parents and educators are embracing the benefits of digital technology, and are hopeful about opportunities for personalized learning innovations that can be accessed in school, at home, and many places in between. But there are also parents who worry about trouble their children may get into with technology. The perceived problems are as varied as the parents – issues ranging from porn and piracy to child ID theft and the risk of jeopardizing college applications.

Some people might be tempted to dismiss the concerns of parents, but we should all recognize that worrying about children –- and weighing upsides and downsides -– is a big part of their jobs.
When I talk with parents and educators, I usually stress the importance of finding balance, and of engaging with new platforms and tools, so that they can make smart tech choices for their children, and perhaps more importantly, teach their children to make smart choices as they grow. This works in many cases, but sometimes I encounter parents or teachers who are frustrated, and know that they understand tech less than children do. They wish there was an off switch, or a time machine to make the Internet disappear. As we’ve seen recently, some policymakers agree.

It’s important to remind them that there is no time machine, and that kids are going to embrace digital technology, just as they’ve always embraced innovation. Parents, teachers and all adults can, and should, help teach kids to make smart choices about technology. What we can’t do is tell a generation of kids to stay offline, because they’re going to live their lives online.

This can be a challenging conversation, and it may be one most tech folks don’t want to have. But it’s a crucial conversation, and startups need to be part of it. Because in the end, the biggest potential digital downside for our nation’s children is that we may block them from technology innovations that can significantly improve their opportunities for learning, and help them prepare for the digital world where they will live, work, play, bank, vote, and more.