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Parent Strategy for Internet Safety

The Internet is a valuable educational and social resource for children. However, it can also expose our children to danger through their discovery of inappropriate materials and experiences. Though the public debate over Internet safety has been cast in terms of whether or not filters are desirable or effective, the most important way to keep kids safe on the Internet is to teach them to make wise choices about what they view and what they participate in, such as chat rooms. The ability to make responsible choices is important since the Web can be accessed ubiquitously—in the home, school, or library.


What the Internet provides

With a few clicks of the mouse, a child could access the complete literary works of Shakespeare and a detailed mapping of the social structure of an ant colony. But sexual predators can also use the Internet to meet and establish a "dialogue" with a large universe of potentially vulnerable children. Through search engines such as Google, a child trying to find images of dolls can type "doll pictures" and obtain a number of legitimate sites. However, if the child used Internet slang and typed "doll pics," the sites that would come up would be very different indeed—and highly disturbing to many.

For kids, the Internet and associated technologies are a rich environment that includes not only Web browsers and e-mail but also instant messaging, chat rooms, peer-to-peer connections, Usenet groups, MP3 (digital audio) players, and wireless devices such as cell phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants, such as Palm Pilots). Kids can access the Web from home, friend's homes, school, libraries, Internet cafes, coffee shops, and wireless, all of which makes direct supervision difficult.


Educating a child for safety

No one single solution exists to protect kids on the Internet. Rather, protection has to rest on social and educational strategies to teach responsible and safe use coupled with technology, public policy, and law enforcement to shape the environment in which choice is exercised.

A foundational component of Internet safety education is parent involvement and supervision. Parents should become aware of the types of good and bad material and experiences that are available online; their son's or daughter's experience online may be vastly different from their own. For that matter, a child's experience away from school could also differ dramatically with that in the classroom.

An acceptable use policy (AUP), an Internet-use "contract" in the form of a written set of guidelines commonly found in schools but also relevant to home use, is another useful educational tool. While these agreements may vary in form, they usually contain the basic elements described in the box, right. Most importantly, using an AUP with a child provides parents with a great opportunity to have some extended conversations about what acceptable use really means in the home in practice.


The role of schools

Besides parents at home, school administrators can promote these educational strategies. Indeed, parents send their children to school with the expectation that school personnel will take responsible care to protect them from harm and to provide adequate instruction. As such, the Internet should be used to support learning and integrated into the regular curriculum as a tool for learning. Teachers, parents, and kids should clearly understand a school's AUP, and class time should be spent discussing it. Enforcement of the AUP is essential, but should be sufficiently flexible so that inadvertent violations are seen as "learning opportunities" rather than automatic occasions for punishment. Teachers should have immediate control of technology in the classroom so they can override technology protections that inadvertently get in the way of instruction.

Schools must use the Internet with realistic expectations about its role in teaching and learning, understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Internet safety instruction ought to be a prerequisite for school-provided Internet access. Older students, who are more Web savvy and computer literate than younger students, could serve as Internet tutors and guides. Some instruction in media literacy could be integrated into the curriculum at all levels as an essential dimension of scholarship and learning. Ideally, teachers would be offered professional development opportunities by their school district to understand the importance of media literacy on the Internet and how to teach it.

The PTA has an important role to play, as well. In collaboration with the PTA, schools could offer programs to parents or guardians wanting to know more about Internet safety and on maintaining open communication between parents and adolescents. For example, parents need to realize that the needs and patterns of appropriate Internet usage may be quite different for a 13-year-old than a 17-year-old.


Technology, public policy, and law enforcement

The discussion above is not to say that technology and policy cannot be helpful. Technology-based tools, such as filters, provide parents and other responsible adults with additional choices as to how best to fulfill their responsibilities. Filters, for example, can be highly effective in reducing access to inappropriate sexually explicit material if the inability to access large amounts of appropriate material is acceptable. A recent study of the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that when filters are set on their least restrictive setting, they can block most sexually explicit material while allowing users access to health information.

Law and regulation can help to shape the environment in which these strategies and tools are used by reducing at least to some extent the availability of inappropriate sexually explicit material on the Internet, for example, by creating incentives and disincentives for responsible business behavior. Because federal laws regarding obscenity were not enforced during the 1990s (the time during which the use of the Internet exploded), there is much uncertainty today about the extent to which these laws could be enforced. Today, particularly egregious Internet examples of sexually explicit material could be prosecuted, and the results might well provide incentives for various suppliers of such material to find other lines of business.

In the end, however, filters do not provide a complete, or even a nearly complete, solution to the problem, and law enforcement alone cannot make our children safe. It's helpful to think of kids and swimming pools, which are both fun and dangerous for children. Locks, fences, pool covers, alarms, and liability for irresponsible owners are all helpful elements of protecting our children. But it's clear that the best thing one can do to protect a child near a swimming pool is to teach him or her how to swim.


This article is based on Youth, Pornography, and the Internet (National Academies Press, 2002), a comprehensive report from the National Research Council. Linda Hodge, National PTA president-elect, was a member of the study committee, and Herbert Lin of the National Research Council was the study director. Additional information on this subject can be found at a National Academies' website for parents.