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James Bosco: How Not to Keep Kids Safe on the Internet

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July 16, 2012 05:51 pm


The following blog post comes from James Bosco, professor emeritus at Western Michigan University and principal investigator for the CoSN, MacArthur Foundation funded project, “Schools and Participatory Learning: Policy and Leadership.”

The information and knowledge resources available to this generation of young people far surpass our wildest imagination of just a couple decades ago. Historically, access to information and knowledge was determined by wealth and location. The Internet has played the key role in providing learning resources to our young people that, just a few years ago, were available only to elite adults. Having worked with schools since the onset of the Internet in our schools, it is wonderful to see schools seize the opportunity to use the Internet to energize learning for our kids and to equip them with the digital media skills they will need for their lives.

With the inevitable trajectory towards mainstreaming digital learning into the education system, concerns about what students should access on the Internet is a reality.  No one concerned about the welfare of our kids can fail to recognize that the Internet poses dangers for them as well as rich learning experience.  It was a simpler world when I began working with schools to provide Internet access for students in the pre-web late 80s. Those of us involved in early efforts to connect schools to the Internet wanted students to be able to use email and access Internet documents and information. It was an alphanumerical non-interactive world. Protecting kids was not a big issue because the pernicious aspects of the Internet were much less conspicuous and available.

The World Wide Web changed everything, and changed it fast!  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) were enacted at the federal l level as web use became more pervasive in the lives of minor age children.  Both CIPA and COPPA were understandable responses to the concerns of parents, educators and policy makers to the use of the web by children.  CIPA focused on protecting kids in schools from pornography In addition to requiring a filter on the district Internet server, CIPA required school districts to develop an acceptable use policy with rules for student use of the school Internet. COPPA was intended to protect children’s privacy on the Internet and to restrict exploitative marking practices.

With the advent of social media and use by young people a new word was added to the dictionary: cyberbulling!   Social media raised other concerns by providing new opportunities for sexual predators.  Bad uses of social media prompted efforts at the state and local level to enact laws or policies to prevent harm to children.

I’m sure readers of this blog were not fooled my title and didn’t expected tips on how to make the Internet harm kids.  My point is that to really protect kids we should not place our reliance on laws or policies per se to do the job. However, even were it possible to rescind COPPA and CIPA – which it is not – my intent is not to make a case against them.  Those laws serve a purpose.  Requiring schools to filter the Internet is particularly valuable with regard to Internet use by young children who could inadvertently stumble upon a site that is bad or upsetting to them. COPPA puts all Internet providers on notice that there are penalties for the exploitation of children.

As a parent, grandparent,  and educator I wish that I could eliminate all that could harm children from their lives either by putting it behind a wall or by being assured that if we tell them not to go there, not to use it, not do it, etc. they would abide by our admonitions.  If we assume that the laws and policies in place enacted to protect children are doing the job, we aren’t really protecting our kids. At best, they may help but they, but as educator in Europe once told me when we were discussing U.S, school filtering, “We believe the filter should be in the child.”

In December 2011 CoSN, with a grant from the MacArthur-UCHRI Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the University of California, Irvine.convened a workgroup in Washington D.C. comprised of  senior representatives of national education organizations. Its purpose was to provide information aimed at helping inform and guide policy makers as they make laws and policies related to the use of mobile technologies and social media in schools. The report which resulted titled, “Making Progress: Rethinking State and School District Policies Concerning Mobile Technologies and Social Media” can be found at:

A key point in the report is: “Banning is not the answer.” The world is filled with good and bad choices. While some districts continue to rely heavily on blocking content and access for students, many more are beginning to realize that students can access a much broader range of content outside of school and educating students on how to be responsible and safe online.  As parents and as educators our mission is to empower our young people to make good choices.  Kids can get around age restrictions on Internet sites or find ways to access bad stuff on the Internet, which includes a lot longer list than just porn sites. Providing our kids with healthy and safe skills and dispositions for the use of the incredible resources of the Internet is not an event but a process. It requires us to work with kids so that they internalize good choice behavior.  In our schools, it requires us to create an environment where kids become responsible agents for safe, ethical, and good use of the school Internet.  Not only can that happen but it is happening in some of our schools.

James Bosco is professor emeritus at Western Michigan University and principal investigator for the CoSN, MacArthur Foundation funded project, “Schools and Participatory Learning: Policy and Leadership.”

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