OPINION: Keeping Alaska’s children safe online is more important than ever

When I got my first tablet at 9 years old, it felt like I had everything I wanted at my fingertips. I dominated at games like Angry Birds and Minecraft, used the Kindle app for endless reading, and started entering chat rooms on Kik (a precursor to chat room apps like Discord). The chat rooms were life-changing! As a kid with niche interests in certain embarrassing (in hindsight) fandoms, being able to chat with strangers online who shared my excitement made me feel connected to a community that I couldn’t find much of in Anchorage. But I didn’t realize the potential dangers I was exposing myself to at a young age. Now, I know that even though you can find people with similar interests in these rooms, they also can be a tool for starting unhealthy relationships that may begin with emotional manipulation and end in exploitation.

The uncertainty and confusion that came with my newfound online friendships was at first exacerbated by the common fear-based approach many schools and families took. Instead of talking to me openly, honestly and with age-appropriate information, the online safety curriculum was and continues to be built around risk and danger. Like most families, the first discussions about online safety that we had at home were centered on restrictions; however, after a few meaningful and open-minded talks about what technology meant to me, my parents and I were able to see my internet usage from each other’s points of view and have since developed a system of mutual trust and understanding. Ongoing constructive dialogue with my parents continues to help me navigate the internet safely and make wise choices, even at age 17.

Giving young people the technological fluency they need is incredibly important; post-pandemic, most of my classes incorporate at least some online component, and already having a base knowledge of different online tools has helped me in both school and work. Let your children take advantage of the internet — teach them how to manage and prevent dangerous situations by talking through different scenarios, fostering open discussions, and not treating online safety as a punishment.

Having these conversations is more important than ever before, especially as data tells us that the age at which children first access the internet is getting younger. While I received my first tablet at 9, my sister got hers at age 4. As that trend continues, making sure kids aren’t vulnerable to harmful online content must be a top priority in every Alaska household. Conversations between families and communities surrounding technology need to become commonplace, practical, open-minded and not based on fearmongering.

I’m passionate about protecting children like my younger sister while still allowing her the freedom to learn and grow through access to technology, so in my internship with Alaska Children’s Trust, I’ve helped develop tools for Alaska parents to start effective online safety conversations. We’ve created conversation prompts for caregivers and kids (including a fun card game!), platform and privacy guides and device info for parents, gathered data on the relationship between social media and mental health, added practical information on online gaming, and more. All the resources we created for Alaska families are on alaskachildrenstrust.org/online-safety. I know these tools can benefit families like mine and make a big difference for a generation raised in a world where online and “real life” are synonymous.

Ella Johanknecht is a junior at West Anchorage High School and a communications intern at Alaska Children’s Trust. She is also a research assistant at the UAA Division of Population Health, working on a project that teaches an internet fluency and healthy aging curriculum to older adults.

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