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Professional Opinion

Protecting Children in the 21st Century

To keep children safe, it is necessary to ensure that they have the values and skills to make good choices.
To protect children, we must give them the tools and knowledge to make good choices.
To protect children, we must give them the tools and knowledge to make good choices. However, fear-based messages have the potential of undermining the transition to 21st-century learning environments.

The Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act added a provision to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requiring that schools that receive E-rate and other technology funds educate minors about appropriate online behavior. This includes showing students how to interact with other individuals on social networking Web sites and in chat rooms, and teaching them about cyberbullying awareness and response.

In its regulations, the FCC did not detail specific procedures or curriculum for schools to use in educating students because, in its opinion, these determinations are better made by schools. The FCC also specifically declined to interpret terms such as “social networking” or “cyberbullying.”

Further, there is no stated requirement for schools to document that every student has received this safety instruction. Some companies selling Internet safety curriculum are touting that their reporting resource will help schools avoid losing an FCC audit. If the FCC intended to audit schools’ compliance with this new provision by requiring schools to provide such extensive documentation, it would have stated so in the regulations. With CIPA issues, the FCC has always taken the position that it will trust the good faith of the schools that they are in compliance.

A middle school educational-technology coordinator told me that she once was teaching a lesson about online predators. The students were told that online strangers were dangerous and deceptive, and that they would try to arrange a meeting with the students  to harm them (the word “sex” was not used). In addition, the course materials suggested that if students posted their name, address, school name, team name or phone number online, dangerous strangers would track them down and abduct them. A young girl asked, “How will they hurt you?” A fellow student responded, “They will rape you.” “What’s rape?” the girl asked. The teacher was totally unprepared to discuss this.

This story illustrates the current challenges. The information presented was not grounded in the data and research on actual online risks. Fear-based messages do not prevent risky behavior, especially when students are advised that normative online behavior is dangerous. Yes, there are risks associated with communicating online with people one does not know in person, and yes, it is important to make safe choices when posting personal information. Students need to know what the actual risks are and how to manage their own behavior to avoid and, if necessary, respond to negative situations.

The story also shows that an educational technology coordinator is not typically prepared to provide instruction that relates to sexual exploitation. Health teachers and counselors have the expertise to support this instruction.

Lastly, these kinds of fear-based messages have the potential of significantly undermining the necessary transition to 21st-century learning environments.

Moving into Action

What can and should educators do to ensure the delivery of effective Internet safety instruction?

  • Establish a multidisciplinary coordinating team. Include educational technology specialists, school librarians, counselors and health teachers.
  • Ensure professional development. All members of this team, and ultimately the entire staff, require an accurate understanding of all of the issues and effective safety guidance.
  • Develop an integrated instructional strategy. Determine how to address these issues in student advisories and homerooms and through informal messaging. Also, decide how to integrate them into the curriculum in appropriate classes. Integrate the higher-risk issues of digital aggression and exploitation into health and well-being classes.
  • Focus on positive empowerment. Reinforce positive norms by showing students that the majority of young people make safe and responsible decisions using digital technologies and that they disapprove of hurtful behavior. Strengthen their effective skills, including problem solving and decision making in a digital environment. Encourage students to be helpful allies if they see that someone is at risk or being harmed.
  • Design an objective evaluation. Develop a strategy to ensure that instruction positively influences your students’ attitudes and behavior.

Making the Right Start

How can K12 educators choose the greatest and best approach?

  • Avoid approaches that impart inaccurate, fear-based information and that communicate the misperceptions that many young people are at risk online or engage in irresponsible actions.
  • Choose approaches that provide insight grounded in research on actual risks, and communicate accurate, positive messages.
  • Avoid approaches that impart simplistic rules against normative online behavior. Choose approaches that focus on problem solving and skill building.
  • Avoid approaches that rely primarily on adults directly teaching students or on videos. Create situations where the majority of the instruction engages students in discussions with their peers, and with teachers as guides.
  • Avoid having students sign Internet safety pledges. Instead, encourage them to develop their own statements of personal standards.
  • Avoid curriculum that is marketed on the basis that it is not necessary for teachers to understand these issues. Ensure that your teachers are prepared to guide their students effectively, which will also provide a necessary foundation for a transition to 21st-century instruction.

Schools can take a giant step forward into 21st-century instruction by using this new requirement to rethink how they can better support their students in becoming safe and responsible digital citizens.

Nancy Willard is director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, a program of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. She is the author of Cyber Savvy: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility (Corwin Press, 2011).