Opinion: Schools Must Contribute to Internet Safety

by Jill Rothenbueler Maher

“Stranger danger” takes on new meaning in the Internet age, where parents must worry about any digitally connected person, anywhere, making inappropriate contact with their child. Consumer Reports’ 2006 State of the Net Survey found that in 8 percent of homes with a child under 18, a youth had seen pornography from a single source: spam. The number of children getting unwanted exposure to illicit content from all sources is certainly higher. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Childrenput the figure at 20 percent each year.

In response, Virginia lawmakers have stepped forward with a law that institutes instructional programs related to Internet safety. H 58 requires the commonwealth’s Department of Education to issue guidelines to school districts for educating students on Internet safety. It also requires the division superintendents to address Internet safety in their acceptable use policies. Great, but is teaching students how to avoid electronic smut really the role of the school system?

At first glance, the law might seem misplaced because the primary responsibility for teaching children about online safety rests with parents.  Society expects that parents or guardians impart knowledge about how to stay physically safe, engage in proper hygiene, and other life skills. Furthermore, cases of cyber problems, including crimes that spilled into offline life, have been reported thoroughly enough that a reasonably aware parent comprehends the danger.  Nationwide television programs have conducted “sting” operations to lure potential child molesters to homes where cameras and reporters – not the child each predator expected to meet – waited.  Media outlets have also reported on the harmful effects of biographical sites, where children can reveal too much information about themselves – details that a predator could use to meet and harm a child in real life.  We’ve all heard about identity theft, which can be perpetrated online, and we’re now being exposed to sad stories of online bullying.

State-level laws requiring schools to take action may also seem unnecessary because nonprofits are already active in the realm. Several organizations, particularly the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the nonprofit i-SAFE, provide information to help safeguard kids.  Why add another topic to schools, many of which are already struggling to meet minimum standards for student education and well-being?

Law is warranted

Online dangers – including children receiving sexual solicitation online – warrant the Virginia law. It is not an overstep of “in loco parentis” duties. Schools should provide a backstop for any parents who overlook instructing children about responsible online behavior and establishing Internet safety rules. It is akin to “fire safety day,” when children are reminded of emergency procedures.  Sessions like this inform children whose parents have not broached the subject with them, and serve as a useful reinforcement for youth whose parents have already issued a warning.  Some groups recommend that a trained teenager be enlisted to help guide younger children – a teenager whose coolness can reinforce warnings from parents.

Schools are a reasonable place for children to learn online safety because many schools are providing onsite Internet access, and some even issue laptops to enrollees. For some students, this is their first exposure to the online world. It follows that a discussion about safe use is prudent. In fact, an ongoing discussion consisting of both formal and informal instruction is ideal.

Parents must stay involved

With this law in effect, Virginia parents should not sleep easy knowing their children have been trained. Vigilance is necessary because overeager, technology-savvy children can outwit technical blocks that should help protect them from harmful behavior and content. Furthermore, parents must keep aware of new dangers that are sure to emerge in coming years, and must be careful to ensure that their children are adhering to household safety rules. For example, web cameras have only proliferated in recent years. This technology can turn children into consumers and even producers, who do not realize the significant potential downsides to their curiosity. A more recent threat is that these cameras can be compromised by maldoers capable of overtaking a misconfigured camera’s operation, possibly risking the user’s privacy or decency.

Misuse of social networking sites like MySpace, is another relative newcomer – and the brilliance of software developers and entrepreneurs means that additional menaces are certain to evolve in coming years. Parents must stay current to know about threats and warn children against them. Experts, such as the authors of the National Academy of Sciences’ report on Youth, Pornography and the Internet, recommend that parents, teachers, and librarians receive some formal training, too. Federally-funded i-SAFE and nonprofit-funded NetSmartz are two prominent venues for that. Parent-faculty groups and similar school-centered organizations can augment existing national providers to help parents keep tabs on the latest threats.

Most schools are not eager to expand their educational burden, but including Internet curriculum is a necessity. The need for information and reinforcement justifies the involvement of the formal education system. Schools, with the cooperation of parents and nonprofits, need to equip children with an understanding of how to protect themselves and be responsible citizens in the online realm.

Jill Rothenbueler Maher works as a consultant in Milwaukee, where she writes about information technology security. She has published two articles on self-regulation of the Internet and one article on the military use of commercial satellite communications. She has a graduate degree from the Georgetown Public Policy Review and a B.S. from the University of Minnesota.

Email Jill Rothenbueler Maher at jillmaher @ mail.com



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