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Judging, Regulating
Student Online Content


Questionable content on teen online social networking sites such as MySpace and other Web sites is prompting many educators to wonder what, if anything, they can do to regulate content. Nancy Willard offers some advice to educators on this growing issue. Included: Tips for monitoring, regulating student-written online content.

Nancy E. Willard
As the popularity of teen online social networking sites such as MySpace continues to grow, so do parent and educator concerns about the content on some of these and other sites. Students need to learn that most of the same rules that apply to face-to-face relationships -- such as not making threats or hurtful comments -- are applicable on the Internet as well, according to Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. She also is involved with Cyberbullying.

Willard's book, Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress, provides educators with guidance on handling this new challenge.

Willard talked with Education World about the ways school administrators can address cyberbullying and other questionable Web content.

Education World: What influence, if any, do school administrators have over student-written content on Web sites not connected to the school system?

Nancy E. Willard: School administrators may intervene with formal discipline if there is a substantial and material disruption or threat of disruption on campus, including the rights of other students to be secure on campus. By way of example, a local principal was faced with a situation where some students had created a racial harassment site that was directed at an unnamed, but known African-American student. The Black Student Union had found out about the site. Clearly this was a situation that raised the threat of disruption on campus.

Beyond formal discipline, school administrators can have significant influence in other ways. Contacting the parents of a student who has posted harmful material will likely result in effective parental intervention. The school administrator can also help the target and his or her parents figure out effective strategies. And the administrator can contact the Web site that the material has been posted on and request removal, if the material is in violation of the site's policy.

EW: What are some ground rules administrators can use when weighing whether content is just youthful banter or threatening?

Willard: Administrators need to look at the entire picture to determine the relations between the students. An old saying seems to be relevant. "You have the right to swing your fist until it threatens to hit my face."

On the issue of material posted online that appears to be threatening, administrators must respond based on their initial impression of the degree of threat. Administrators cannot take the risk of not following through with appropriate response to ensure student safety. But it is important to continue to investigate the situation because material that can appear threatening online could be a joke, an unsubstantiated rumor, or even impersonation. It is also essential to use these situations to educate students about the importance of not posting material that could appear to an adult to be threatening and to report any online material that does raise concerns.

EW: How can schools limit cyberbullying, besides monitoring computer use in school? What type of messages do teachers need to deliver to students about this problem?

Willard: Schools need to make sure that they have good policies, are effectively monitoring student Internet use, and apply appropriate consequences to misuse that harms another student. Too many schools are relying on filtering software, which is not effective in addressing pornography.

"On the issue of material posted online that appears to be threatening, administrators must respond based on their initial impression of the degree of threat. Administrators cannot take the risk of not following through with appropriate response to ensure student safety."

Many students think that they have a free speech right to say anything they want online, regardless of the harm. I think it is important to educate students about the limits on speech. These limits include: family values, school rules, terms of use agreements on the sites, civil laws, criminal laws, and most important, personal values. It likely would be very helpful for teachers to download and provide students with the terms of use agreements of the popular youth Web sites. These terms of use disallow harmful speech. Students who are targeted by such speech can file complaints with the site to get the account of the person posting such speech closed.

EW: Who are the likely candidates to engage in cyberbullying?

Willard: Direct cyberbullying appears to be occurring most within the groups of students who are communicating with each other online. This is generally the students who are most active in the "social status" activities in the school. It appears that a lot of cyberbullying is occurring between "in-crowd" students and the "wannabes."

Anecdotally, it appears that girls are more inclined to engage in cyberbullying than boys. Girls always have been drawn more to online communication activities, whereas boys like games. It is in the context of the communication activities that much of the cyberbullying occurs.

EW: What is the biggest misconception kids have about content they post on the Internet?

Willard: The misconception that they have a free-speech-right to post anything online. A close second misperception relates to privacy. Students appear to think that there is some level of privacy in what they post or send through the Internet and fail to recognize that anything they post or send -- even privately to a friend -- is or could easily be made very public.

This e-interview with Nancy Willard is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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