You'd search far and wide to find an adult who does not support protecting children from pornography, hate speech, and other undesirable content on the Internet. But exactly how to keep children safe has sparked intense debate among parents, educators, politicians, technological experts, and others.
Some observers question children's need to use the Internet at all. Why not simply use more traditional methods of research and information collection, they ask. Why not keep children, especially young children, from using the Internet?
We need to allow kids to use the Internet "because the amount of educational material on the Internet outweighs the minor inconvenience of having to monitor what is going on," said Barbara Feldman, who writes a syndicated newspaper column, "Surfing the Net With Kids." [See below to learn how to subscribe to an online version of the column.]
"I think elementary- and preschool-age kids should ONLY use the Internet with direct adult supervision. As kids enter their teens, I believe that MOST children can be given more freedom," Feldman continued. "To me that means that family (or school) rules are agreed upon and followed or computer privileges are lost. For kids AND teens, I believe the Internet computer should be in a shared room (family room, kitchen, etc.) so that adults can keep an eye on what's happening on the monitor."
A recent classroom incident, reported in the March 25, 1998, New York Times, underlines the need for clear school policies for Internet use by students. Two fourth-grade students in Waldo, Fla., were disciplined after their teacher discovered them using a classroom computer to make a World Wide Web search for, as the Times put it, "a mild vulgarity that refers to a woman's breasts."
Such incidents lead to the question of how schools can allow students to use the Internet educationally yet keep undesirable language or visual material out of the classroom. Parents of the boys in Florida, whose names were not disclosed, say schools must put in filtering software intended to stop potential student access to pornography, undesirable language, and other objectionable sites. A number of such filtering programs, such as SurfWatch and Net Nanny, are sold for the stated purpose of ensuring children's safety.
The director for the Florida state unit that acts as an Internet service provider for the public education system said that 75 to 80 percent of the state's school districts already filter or plan to do so, through the state or other services.
Some educators and other observers, however, object to the use of filtering software in the classroom because, they maintain, it often blocks legitimate material and fails to catch all the pornography and smut. There are those observers who think the best way to ensure Internet safety for children is teaching them to use the computer responsibly. In any given classroom hooked up to the Internet, these educators say, the teacher must establish an acceptable-use policy for the computer, a set of rules oulining online do's and don'ts.
What is the U.S. government doing about keeping children safe on the Internet? In June 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Amendment as unconstitutional. The amendment to the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 regarding alleged "indecent" content on the Internet would deprive Americans of their right to free speech on the Internet, the Supreme Court held.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, the federal government has launched a different sort of public information initiative to protect kids on the Net. An Internet Online Summit: Focus On Children was held from December 1 to 3, 1997, in Washington, D.C. Among the speakers were Vice President Al Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno, and Education Secretary Richard Riley.
"Both the President and I have long been convinced that the Internet is not a luxury or a diversion; it is an essential tool for children. And its use is fast becoming an essential skill for adults," said Vice President Gore at the summit. "Ten million children are already on the Internet," he went on, "and that's four times as many as just a few years ago."
Gore stated that Americans should "allow the industry to take the lead, with the help and guidance of government, advocacy groups, and families, to provide parents with the education and tools they need to preserve both safety and freedom on the Internet."
He encouraged industry to work to "make the new technologies [that protect children by filtering Internet content] easier to use, more effective, and more widely available...These tools must become as commonplace and as easy to use as the remote control on the family TV."
In contrast with the U.S. government's emphasis on new technology, such as software that filters Internet content to protect children, other groups emphasize teaching children to handle the Internet as it is. The Blue Ribbon Campaign for Online Free Speech maintains that "such filtering software does not actually perform as advertised, and in fact not only is physically incapable of blocking material that fits a particular legal definition such as 'obscene,' but also has been demonstrated to block numerous sites with no 'obscene' or 'indecent' content whatsoever -- material that is perfectly suitable for children."
The Blue Ribbon Campaign opposes current legislative attempts to require federally funded libraries and schools to use software filters to censor Internet content. One such bill, the Campaign says, "would make it a crime to have the content of the average bookstore or library available from a Web site."
Vice President Gore, in contrast, has urged Congress to pass such legislation requiring schools and libraries that use federal subsidies for Internet access to block inappropriate material from children. "As we connect every school and classroom to the Internet, we must protect our children from the red-light districts of cyberspace," he said.
As the debate over how best to protect children swirls, educators using the Internet are faced with an immediate problem: What action to take now to protect children in their classrooms from inappropriate Internet content?
Vice President Gore speaks for developing better, more sophisticated technology to help filter Internet content. Meanwhile, many experts say, the current technology should be utilized in schools because it at least makes surfing the Net safer for children.
Other experts disagree. "Filtering blocks out too much, and it doesn't teach kids the critical skills they need to use this resource as they grow older," David L. Sobel, legal counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center told the New York Times.
Many parents and teachers establish rules to guide children in Internet use. The following rules for online safety, adapted from a brochure by columnist Lawrence J. Magid, might be used in the home or adapted for the classroom:
In short, many observers say, parents and teachers need to establish the same kinds of rules and responsible behavior for Internet use as they set for kids in general.
NEXT WEEK: Teaching kids to surf safely
Article by Sharon Cromwell
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