The Internet, one of the richest and most powerful educational tools in today’s classroom, is redefining the way that students find and share information and interact with others. But not all students’ and especially not all parents’ always understand the potential safety and security risks the Internet may present.
As a result, schools have begun to take responsibility for providing both students and parents with the education they need to stay safe online.
“Before, schools were saying that it was a parenting thing,” says Jeff Godlis, a spokesman for Carlsbad, Calif.-based i-SAFE, a nonprofit organization that produces Internet-safety curricula for schools. “And it certainly can be, but it hasn’t hit parents’ radar as much as it should.”
There’s been a definite uptick in the number of school districts that have adopted Internet-safety curricula, says Godlis, and because of a recent update to the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools receiving money through the federal E-rate program to provide Internet-safety education to students, that number will surely rise.
In the 7,500-student Henry County schools in Collinsville, Va.—located in the first state to make such education mandatory at all grade levels—teachers, parents, school board members, and administrators have banded together to establish an Internet-safety task force, says Melany R. Stowe, a spokeswoman for the district.
“We have filters [at school], so we feel really confident while [students] are with us, but we know that when they go home and to their friends’ houses, most computers don’t have a filter on their Internet,” says Stowe, who recently created a comic book about Internet safety to hand out to students and parents.
The comic book provides students with important online-safety tips such as not to give out computer passwords to friends or acquaintances, not to open e-mails from unknown senders, and not to download documents or programs before asking an adult’s permission. It also includes tips for educators on such issues as what to do if a student accidentally encounters an inappropriate Web site and how to help students choose safe screen names.
The school district does not have an Internet-safety class or a particular day when students are taught about online safety, says Stowe, because “it’s embedded in everything we do. It’s just a part of everyday instruction when we’re talking about the Internet or technology.”
Making Good Decisions
Most Internet-safety experts agree that blocking Web sites with heavy filters or using scare tactics to warn students about the dangers of the Internet are methods that simply don’t work, and that even prevent students from engaging in valuable educational opportunities. A better approach, they say, is to give students accurate information so they can make good decisions.
One such expert is Mala Bawer, an executive director of CyberSmart!, a Bernardsville, N.J.-based organization that designs Internet-safety lessons for students and educators.
“CyberSmart’s motivation to address safety concerns comes from wanting to engage students in the digital world, not blocking it out of fear,” Bawer says.
Even so, school officials, such as Stowe in the Henry County schools, recognize that filters play an important role in keeping students safe online at school, if not at home.
Still, Monique Nelson, the chief operating officer of the Santa Ana, Calif.-based Web Wise Kids, which has created online simulation games based on real-life scenarios designed to teach students Internet safety, emphasizes that educating students is a better way to keep them safe than relying on Internet filters.
“We need to get to the kids because the kids are the ones that are on the cutting edge of all the technology—long before their parents ever know about it,” she says. “They’re their own first line of defense.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as ‘First Line of Defense’