4-H programs address growing concern for Internet safety
May 19, 2011
Internet safety is a growing concern for youth, said Sheri Merry, University of Illinois Extension youth development educator. In order to help youth, parents and caretakers face this growing reality, U of I Extension educators are continuing to improve and develop new and engaging programs on Internet safety.

The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project reports that 93 percent of American teenagers are online, with nearly every teenager in the United States having access to and actively participating in online social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and blogs.

"Online social networks make teenagers feel they are part of a group and provide an outlet for creative expression," said Pat McGlaughlin, U of I Extension 4-H youth development specialist. "Unfortunately, many teens and adults don't understand the implications of online social networking. They believe the information they post on their social networking sites is for their friends' eyes only."

In reality, there is no privacy on the Internet, McGlaughlin said.

Because of this, Illinois 4-H has launched a new Healthy Relationships Initiative focused on teaching youth and adults how to develop healthy relationships that support positive life skills and strong resiliency skills.

"Our goal is to help youth strengthen their decision-making skills while acquiring valuable self-responsibility skills as they consider how decisions made today may impact potential future outcomes," McGlaughlin said. "We want to help them expand positive communication methods."

She said 4-H programs are also teaching youth how to build emotional resiliency and enhance positive social connections.

For example, last year Extension educators and Regional Offices of Education #26 and #1 have partnered to promote Internet safety awareness and offer education and resources to address the 2009 legislative mandate.

"U of I Extension provided informational pieces that potentially reached more than 10,000 students at school registrations last year," Merry said. "We also distributed fact sheets on a monthly basis."

Internet Safety Awareness assemblies utilizing the 4-H model of research-based, experiential learning for third to eighth grades taught kids about the use of safe and responsible networking sites. The assemblies also increased awareness of cyber bullying and identification of illegal activities and communication, Merry added. Community sessions have also been offered to adults and caretakers on the importance of and methods to keeping kids safe online.

"We focused on helping them identify and recognize the use of solicitation and online predators," Merry said. "At least two potential incidents of online cyber bullying were later identified and addressed as a result of the awareness raised in these community presentations."

For more information on U of I Extension, read Extension in Action at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/EIA/. To find out more about Internet safety, contact Pat McGaughlin at 217-333-0910 or Sheri Merry at 217-357-2150.