Issues related to youth risk online and Internet use management are high on the “radar” in many schools. Following the lead of Virginia, many states also are beginning to require that students be instructed in Internet safety.
Student use of Web 2.0 technologies is expanding, along with incredible opportunities for interactive educational activities -- and a host of risk and management concerns. Even the most die-hard techies now recognize that filtering systems are not the solution they were promised to be. In many schools, students regularly bypass the filter -- not to get to porn sites, but to access their favorite social networking sites.
We also are seeing signs of an emerging recognition that the Web 1.0 Internet safety approach -- based on simplistic, fear-based rules -- is ineffective. Simple rules still are appropriate for young children, for whom adults bear the primary safety responsibility. ‘Tweens and teens, however, need to know what the risks are, know how to avoid risky situations, how to detect whether they are at risk, how to respond effectively, when to ask for help, and how to make good choices.
The understanding also is emerging that youth risk online must be viewed from the perspective of adolescent risk. Many young people competently use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner. More naïve ‘tweens and teens still need to gain the information and skills necessary to become competent. Young people who are vulnerable and “at risk” in the real world are the ones who are most at risk online. Comprehensive strategies must be developed to ensure the safety of those young people. That requires close cooperation between school staff and those with expertise in educational technology.
An effective school-based strategy to address the issue of online safety should include these six key components:
Schools must ensure that when students use the Internet, their activities have an educational purpose -- class assignments, extra credit work, and perhaps some high quality enrichment activities as a reward. The more well-prepared teachers are to lead students in high quality exciting Internet-based learning activities, the more likely students will be on-task. And when students are “on-task,” problems dissipate.
Supervision and Monitoring
Schools must shift focus from reliance on filtering to better supervision and monitoring. Schools must create conditions in which exists a high potential that misuse will be detected and lead to a consequence. There must be a clear expectation that Internet use by students will be effectively supervised by staff. Staff should periodically and randomly request to see student history files as they are walking throughout the lab. Use of technical monitoring tools, such as real time remote access monitoring tools in computer labs or even intelligent content analysis monitoring, should be expanded.
Misuse of the Internet must lead to a meaningful consequence -- but it should be recognized that suspension of Internet access privileges just causes more work for teachers. Requiring a service contribution to the school and establishing “close monitoring status” for all Internet use are preferable consequences. Close monitoring can be handled if the school has an effective technical monitoring system.
Accidental Access to Porn
Everyone must recognize that no technology tool is infallible! Students or staff may accidentally access pornography. All students and staff must know that if inappropriate material appears, they should quickly turn off the monitor or turn it so it can’t be seen, and then report it. Following any incident or discovery, there must be a responsible assessment of culpability.
In many schools, the filter blocks access to perfectly appropriate material. Library media staff should have primary authority for decisions regarding categories to be blocked. They are the district’s most highly trained professionals on issues related to the appropriateness of materials for students. Selected staff in every school building must have the authority and ability to quickly override the filter to provide other staff or students access to sites that have been inappropriately blocked. Districts should create special access to sites related to youth health and well-being, including sex education sites and quality medical and social information for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) teens, because filters routinely block access to such material. (If you are blocking access to medical and social information for LGBT teens, this is a violation of Title IX and the First Amendment!)
Internet Safety and Responsible Use Education
Schools must provide effective Web 2.0 Internet safety and responsible use education to students and parents. Unfortunately, lack of an effective Web 2.0 Internet safety curriculum is a concern. Much of the current available material is Web 1.0 based and incomplete. A coordinated approach to provide that information through appropriate classes is necessary. Currently, librarians and educational technology staff address those concerns, although health educators or counselors may be the more appropriate staff members to provide instruction on many issues.
The school is an important conduit for providing information to parents. That can be achieved through parent workshops, information in school newsletters, "just in time" materials in office and counselor’s room, and by making some of the new Web 2.0 Internet safety for parents books available in the school library.
All school staff should have a good awareness of the issues related to youth online risk. Many young people are reticent to tell adults anything about Internet concerns for fear the adults will overreact and make matters worse. Students "connect" with different teachers and, if a student is in a difficult situation online, he or she might choose to confide in a teacher. Students, however, are unlikely to be direct in discussing a concern. Teachers must be sensitive to students who initiate conversation about the Internet that provides even a “glimmer of a suggestion” of a problem, and they must have sufficient insight and awareness to calmly guide the discussion.
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