Search form

Cyber Savvy:
Supporting Safe and
Responsible Internet Use

What's Not Working to Keep Kids Safe Online

Before we can focus on effective strategies to address specific risks that young people face online, it's important to reflect on strategies that simply are not working. In this column, we will discuss

  • Relying on filtering technologies
  • Providing simplistic rules
  • Using fear-based tactics
  • Promoting sole reliance on adults
  • Avoiding uncomfortable information
  • Considering that the child is always the victim


In the mid to late 1990s, concerns of youth access to online pornography threatened to derail the growth of the Internet and the introduction of the Internet into schools. The solution that was developed was "user empowerment tools" -- otherwise known as filtering software. That led to the very dangerous misperception that all parents and schools had to do was to install filtering software, configure it correctly, and "voila!" young people would be protected from harm as they surfed the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In a 2002 study, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the top selling filtering products had a 10 percent failure rate in blocking intentional access to pornography. Translate that to "teen time." How many minutes would it take an unsupervised teen intent on accessing pornography to get to a site with such material?

A study of young people online found increased accidental exposure to pornography, despite increased use of filtering in the home. In reviewing the reported instances where such accidental access had taken place, it was clear that if the children and teens had known of -- and followed -- simple safety guidelines, such accidental access would likely not have occurred.

Further, it is very easy to bypass filters using various proxy technologies, including proxy technology that can be installed by students on their home computers. Google "bypass Internet filter" to find out how.


Want More?

For more Education World articles by Nancy Willard, see

Keeping Kids Safe Online

Insuring Student Privacy on the Internet

Schools, the Internet, and Copyright Law

Nancy Willard's Archive

In a report prepared by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences entitled Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, chair Dick Thornburgh noted in the preface:

[This report] will disappoint those who expect a technological "quick fix" to the challenge of pornography on the Internet. It will disappoint parents, school officials, and librarians who seek surrogates to fulfill the responsibilities of training and supervision needed to truly protect children from inappropriate sexual materials on the Internet.

There are certainly some benefits from the use of filtering software -- if, and only if, filtering companies are not blocking based on viewpoint discrimination, and if educators have the ability and authority to promptly override the filter to access and review any blocked site and to provide access to students when appropriate. The greatest concern about reliance on filtering is that such reliance has led to false security and the failure to implement other more effective strategies of education and monitoring.


An example of a simplistic Internet safety rule commonly provided to young people is: "Don't post personal information online." That simple rule is appropriate and effective for children. But teens will have many questions: How do I register on a site? How can I purchase something on E-bay without providing my name and address? If I have an anonymous username, is it okay to post pictures of myself in a bikini or pictures of the party I went to on Friday night? How can I have fun on Facebook without sharing information about who I am?

Teens need to have an accurate understanding of the risks associated with the disclosure of different kinds of personal information, and the skills that will allow them to function safe and effectively online.


Too often the Internet safety messages provided to young people are grounded in fear. Online Stranger = Danger! Below are some examples of fear-based thinking and messages.

The Polly Klaas Foundation announced the results of a study of youth behavior online stating
"The recent explosion in social networking on the Internet offers unprecedented benefits. At the same time, kids are engaging in very risky online behavior. Our Nationwide Poll showed

  • Half of teens 13-18 have communicated online with someone they've never met.
  • One third have talked about meeting in person someone they only know online."

The evaluation of the I-Safe Internet safety curriculum asked elementary and middle school students the following questions:

  • How likely is it that someone you meet online would pretend to be someone they are not?
  • How likely is it that someone you meet online would try to hurt or scare you?
  • If you reveal your personal information to someone youve only met online, how likely is it that person will try to contact you?
  • If you agree to have a face-to-face meeting with someone you only talk to online, how likely is it that the person will try to harm you?

The answer "highly likely" was considered desirable and evidence that the curriculum was effective.

The above are totally unrealistic fears. It is known that "stranger-danger" warnings are not effective at keeping kids safe. Adolescent risk-prevention research has clearly demonstrated that fear-based prevention approaches are ineffective. As the Klaas research has shown, many teens are communicating with online strangers, want to meet in person with people they have met online, and are highly likely to continue to do so. The vast majority of people teens meet online are perfectly safe -- but some are not. Teens must have effective "stranger literacy" skills to assess the safety and trustworthiness of online strangers and know safe guidelines for meeting such strangers.

Of greatest concern is that fear-based Internet safety messages communicate to teens that "adults don't get it." Teens simply dismiss fear-based messages as evidence that adults fear what they do not understand. As a result, teens are less willing to come to adults for help when they really should because they think adults will overreact.


Another standard Internet safety message provided to children and teens is "If you feel uncomfortable about something that happens online, tell an adult." Again, that guidance is perfectly appropriate for children, but will not be effective for teens. Teens are not going to tell adults about online concerns if they think the adults will overreact, blame them, restrict their online access, not know what to do, or make the problem worse.

Teens need to have the knowledge and skills to handle many Internet concerns independently. A teen who is addressing an online concern will most likely turn to other teens for guidance on how to handle the situation. We can help all teens by focusing on "bystander strategies" that can empower savvy teens to provide effective peer guidance. Further, teens need assurance that adults will know how to effectively respond and will not overreact or make matters worse.


Neither I-Safe nor NetSmartz, in their middle school Internet safety curriculum materials addressing online predators

  • use the word "sex."
  • discuss the sexual intentions of predators.
  • address why those sexual relationships are unhealthy and dangerous.

If we adults are too scared to talk about risky sex with teens, then how do we expect teens to be comfortable reporting to us that someone is "hitting on them" online?


The FBI guide for parents entitled, A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety, states

"Understand, even if your child was a willing participant in any form of sexual exploitation, that he/she is not at fault and is the victim. The offender always bears the complete responsibility for his or her actions."

That statement is legally accurate. But from a prevention perspective, it is exceptionally important to recognize that some teens are posting sexual provocative images on their social networking profiles, using sexually inviting usernames, going into chat rooms where it is quite obvious that the discussions are all about sex, and engaging in online activities for the purpose of "hooking up" for sexual encounters with adults. We will not be able to effectively prevent online predation if we do not also address the risky or inappropriate attitudes and behavior of teens.


The "cyber-safe kids, cyber-savvy teens formula" has three components:

  • When children are young, they should only use the Internet in safe places and be able to follow simple safety rules.
  • As they grow and become teens, children must have the knowledge, skills, and values to independently make good choices online.
  • Adults must remain "hands-on" to ensure they do.

Subsequent columns will address how to effectively implement this formula in schools.

Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Updated 06/10/2011