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Keeping Kids Safe Online


As educators, our primary focus must be on helping young people develop effective filtering and blocking systems that reside in the hardware that sits on their shoulders. Included: The four core components of a successful online safety strategy.

Is your district preparing students to make safe and responsible choices when they use the Internet?

Nancy Willard

Unfortunately, many districts rely primarily on technology blocking systems to prevent student access to inappropriate online material. Technology fixes are not infallible, however, nor are they always available. If primary reliance is placed on such fixes, young people will be more vulnerable -- and at greater risk -- at those inevitable times when they have open access to the Internet.

Just as fenced play yards are an appropriate environment for young children, so is it clearly necessary to keep elementary students in safe places on the Internet and to closely supervise any open access to the Internet. Elementary students do not have the necessary knowledge or skills to independently use the Internet in a safe manner.

Fenced play yards are not an inappropriate environment for teenagers, however. Secondary students use the Internet in many environments. Do your students know how to avoid accessing Internet garbage? Do they know what to do if they are "mouse-napped" and cannot get out of a site? Have they learned safe communication skills, how to protect their personal privacy, and how to recognize, deal with, and report sexual solicitation? Do they know how to protect themselves from Internet scams and how to look out for problems of Internet addiction? Do they know how to recognize and avoid disrespectful and harmful online material?

Secondary students should have a clear understanding of the expectations for their behavior when using the Internet in school, and they should be held accountable for such use. Technology protection measures that filter and warn or those that use filtered monitoring can promote responsible choice and ensure accountability.

When schools use blocking technologies, however, they turn over control of determining the appropriateness of material for students to third-party companies -- with no mechanism in place to ensure that those companies are blocking in accordance with appropriate educational standards. Companies protect their criteria, processes, and lists of blocked sites as trade secrets. Districts that want to have blocking in place should consider the use of the Internet Content Rating Association system, which blocks access to sites that have rated themselves as adult sites or the use of a blocking system that provides full access to its list of blocked sites.

A comprehensive strategy to address online safety includes four core components.

A Focus on the Educational Purpose. Use of district Internet systems should be limited to those activities that support education, enrichment, and career development. Districts should support that use through a commitment to professional development and technical and instructional support for teachers, the development of Internet-based lesson plans, and the establishment of an educational Web site containing links to quality previewed educational materials.

Education about Safe and Responsible Use. Teachers, students, and administrators should receive instruction on issues related to the safe and responsible use of the Internet. The National Education Technology Standards for Students (NETS), National Education Technology Standards for Teachers (NETT), and Technology Standards for School Administrators (TSSA), all available at the National Education Technology Standards Project include requirements in this area.

Supervision and Monitoring. Student use of the Internet should be supervised in a manner that is appropriate for the age of the students and the circumstances of use. The district should also monitor student Internet use. Users should be made aware that they have a very limited expectation of privacy when using the Internet at school.

Discipline. Misuse of the Internet should result in consequences that are appropriate to the circumstances of misuse and should help educate both the offending student and other students about the standards for appropriate use.

As educators, our primary focus must be on helping young people develop effective filtering and blocking systems that reside in the hardware that sits on their shoulders. Filtering should be a function of the knowledge and decision-making skills that are necessary to make safe and responsible choices. Blocking should be based on the self-control to act in accordance with standards and personal values. Reliance on technology fixes will not accomplish this. What is required is a comprehensive strategy and commitment to the empowerment of young people.

Nancy E. Willard, M.S., J.D. is a former educator and attorney who has focused on youth online risk issues for more than a decade. She is director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and She also is the author of two books: Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Addressing the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress (Research Press) and Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly (Jossey-Bass).


Article by Nancy Willard
Education World®
Copyright © 2002 Education World

updated 03/21/2007