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March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

Making Cyberspace Safe for Children

Teachers and parents must become aware of the dangers that await their children in the enticing online world of the Internet.

  • "What data do you have on the number of children who give personal information over the Internet?"
  • "What do you know about programs that provide age-appropriate Internet content filtering?"
  • "And by the way, can you support your opinion through hard research?"
  • Too many sites ask for personal information from kids.
  • Existing Internet filtering software excludes either too much useful information or not enough problematic information.
  • We can support some of our views through existing research, but many questions remain.

Children, the Internet, and the Law

The United States has attempted to address the issue through legislation. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is intended, according to Senator Richard Bryan (D-Nevada), to protect children who participate in online forums
But a survey of 75 randomly selected Internet sites done subsequent to this act's enactment in October 1998 revealed that 71 sites collected personal information. Fully 51 of these sites neither posted a privacy statement nor made any attempt to explain the site's data-collection practices. Only four of the 71 sites attempted to obtain verifiable parental consent: two before asking questions, two after the fact (Center for Media Education [CME], 1999).
The results were disturbingly similar to those from a more detailed study conducted three years earlier. Of the 38 sites sampled, 90 percent collected personal information and 25 percent sent an e-mail to the children after their initial visit. Forty percent set cookies, tags that identify visitors to a Web site. Forty percent used incentives, such as free merchandise and screensavers, to encourage children to divulge personal information; several sites even used product spokescharacters to elicit information from children (CME, 1996).
The disclosures that children make in e-mail, newsgroups, and chat rooms expose them to the greatest dangers, according to child safety advocate Lawrence J. Magid (1999):
Sites can unwittingly enable such potentially dangerous contacts. Searching for a "safe environment" for her granddaughters to explore the Internet, a researcher checked out one child-oriented site. For several months, she logged on as a child. The site made no effort to confirm her identity. A later Center for Media Education review of the site revealed a notice disclaiming responsibility for any interactions that might take place outside of the site as a result of the exchange of e-mail addresses, Internet addresses, or other information within the site's interactive pages (CME, 1997).

Our Data, Our Selves

  • Disclosure must be effective and full.
  • Parental consent must be obtained.
  • Parents must be able to correct any information already collected about and from their children.
  • Parents must be able to prevent the use of their children's information.
Although some developers of Web browsers, children's Web sites, and search engines are scrambling to comply with the requirements set out by advocacy groups and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, others have taken a proactive course. At least 15 software manufacturers have created Internet-filtering applications to provide a safe environment for children to explore the Web.
  • List-based (SurfWatch, NetNanny, CyberPatrol). The program compares the URL requested with a list of sites identified by the software manufacturer as having content that violates established criteria. List-based applications are the most numerous of the programs designed to protect children, and manufacturers claim a 90 to 95 percent success rate. Adults can adjust list-based programs as they discover new offensive sites and categories. However, each manufacturer uses different criteria to define what is objectionable. (For example, what types of cultural nudity or historical discussions of Nazism or information on drug use will a particular program screen out?)
  • Lock-out (KidDesk Internet Safe). The program permits browser access only to sites approved by parents or school administrators. Lock-out software may be the most effective type of program in preventing access to age-inappropriate sites but requires the most intervention because parents or administrators must add sites manually. This approach may not be suitable for older children who roam through dozens of sites daily.
  • Pattern-matching (Web Chaperone). The program looks for specific patterns or terminology found on offensive Web pages. Pattern-matching programs, once installed, usually require no further intervention, but some searches may allow prurient material to leak through or non-prurient material to be excluded.
The responsibility for choosing, operating, and maintaining filtering applications often falls on classroom teachers, many of whom admit to feeling increasingly inadequate to the task. Fully 80 percent of 286 teachers surveyed in Maryland expressed a desire for more technical support in evaluating software and Web sites (Pittman, 1999).
  • Online safety guides for kids, teens, and parents
  • Tools to help families protect children from violent or explicit content; monitor or limit children's time online; and curtail access to chat rooms, e-mail, and newsgroups
  • Forms to report trouble with children's online contacts
  • Links to child-friendly Web sites

Protecting Our Children Now

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, filtering software, and GetNetWise notwithstanding, educators still must learn about the consequences of disseminating personal information over the Internet, especially as technology and pedagogy become more interconnected. Here are some first steps.
Set up a safe environment. Suggest that parents move the computer out of their child's bedroom and into the living room (Magid, 1999). Install Internet filtering software. None of the many available programs is entirely effective, so choose carefully. Sites such as www.cnet.com and www.superkids.com frequently review filtering software.
Disable cookies, Java, and Javascript. Cookies are text files that Web sites place in the cookies folder of a computer's browser. Every time the computer accesses a particular Web site, the site's computer can upload the cookies file and determine what sites the computer has visited previously. Some Web sites use cookies to track a user's preferences for business planning purposes or to tailor Web pages to reflect an individual user's preferences. Some people object to having personal information collected about them. And in a home situation where just one family is using a computer, Web site operators can piece together a comprehensive picture of a family just by analyzing its Web-browsing habits.
Most programmers are honest. They use Java and Javascript to create search windows for their sites or to create cool graphics effects. Some programmers are not so nice. They use these languages to write programs that search a computer's hard drive for confidential information, such as student and employee social security numbers, network settings, and credit card and financial account data. Some even use these programs to transmit deadly computer viruses that can erase a hard drive.
Educate parents and teachers so that they can educate kids. Parents and teachers need to use readily available information to draw up guidelines. They can adapt the suggestions at www.childrenspartnership.org to specific computing environments at school and at home. Internet-use contracts for children and parents and an Internet safety quiz to teach children about Internet safety are available at www.cyberangels.org.
Find out where children have been on the Internet. At home and at school, parents and teachers should regularly check the "History" submenu on their Internet browser to track the sites that children are visiting. Using search engines, such as www.altavista.com and www.deja.com, to look for a child's name can prove effective in keeping track of where he or she posts information. In this way, one father discovered that his son had been quoted in a local newspaper without the father's knowledge (Magid, 1999).
  • Involve the family, the school, and the community.
  • Teach that giving personal information over the Internet is not the norm, even if kids think that "everyone is doing it."
  • Help kids recognize the anxiety, stress, peer attitudes, and advertising that influence them to reveal personal information.
  • Help kids develop personal, social, and refusal skills to resist pressure.
  • Reinforce positive behavior when kids share how they followed recommended advice.
  • Design activities that describe the consequences of giving personal information over the Internet without adult guidance. Use posters, stickers, and bulletin board displays to remind kids.
  • Talk about prevention in multiple sessions, but don't overload kids with information.
  • Include teacher training and support. Train and support teachers, parents, and students in groups.
  • Establish clear and measurable ways to gauge the program's success. Begin with a survey to determine the extent of the problem in the school or community; repeat the survey six months later.
  • Develop an action plan.

Implications for the Future

Fortunately, existing technology can assist research efforts to monitor and track information disclosure. These research results can, in turn, shape professional development and public education efforts, which can provide effective guidance to legislative bodies and private firms as they enact the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and related policies. For example, industries often express a concern about the cost of regulation, accountability, and disclosure (CME, 1998). Who will pay? Who will win? Who will lose? Should the public be concerned? What about parents? The education community? These issues have important implications for the viability of legislation.
To focus more attention on the role of technology and the safety of children in cyberspace, researchers, teachers, and parents must continue to raise questions about practices for obtaining personal information from children.

Bryan, R. (1998, October 7). Congressional Record, 144(139), S11657.

Center for Media Education (CME). (1996–1999). Update of children's web sites' information collection practices [Online]. Available: http://tap.epn.org/cme/ftcrpt.html

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). (1999). Get net wise. ISTE Update, 12(1), 1–8.

Lycos. (1999). Lycos sponsors GetNetWise industry initiative for children's online safety [On-line]. Available: http://lycos.com/press/getnetwise.html

Magid, L. (1999, July 5). Lessons children learn on internet safety can be lessons for living. Los Angeles Times [On-line]. Available: www.safekids.com/articles/ lessons.htm

Pittman, J. (1999). An analysis of research, policy, and practice: Do we need training standards in new technologies for inservice teachers? Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Iowa State University, Ames.

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