Essential Strategy

The development of strategies to address issues of concern regarding the use of the Internet by young people must be grounded in knowledge of effective parenting and educational strategies. Parents and educators already know a great deal about helping young people learn to engage in safe and responsible behavior.

Raising Children in the "Real World"

When children are too young to comprehend the dangers, to understand the expectations for their behavior, and to engage in safe and responsible decision-making, we keep them in safe places and supervise their activities. When we take our children to places that may be less safe, such as a public park, we even more closely supervise their activities. We also use these public excursions as opportunities to teach our children. We teach them about potential dangers, how to recognize dangerous situations, and what actions to take to keep themselves safe. We introduce these lessons with an understanding of the cognitive development and sensitivities of their age.

We also teach children about our positive expectations for their behavior. We teach them about respect for others and actions that are necessary to support the good of the community. And if they engage in unsafe or irresponsible behavior, we intervene with appropriate discipline. We use transgressions as "teachable moments" to review and reinforce the lessons of safe and responsible behavior.

As children grow, we allow them increasing freedom. We do not expect that teenagers will be satisfied remaining in fenced play yards. But we remain engaged. We know that young people who have parents and other influential adults who remain "hands-on" -- active involvement, ongoing communication, supervision -- are much less likely to engage in unsafe or irresponsible behavior. New issues related to potential dangers and expectations for behavior emerge. Issues that would not have been appropriate to address when a child was younger, such as date rape, become important issues to address at this age. We use the same pattern of instruction, providing information about the issue of concern, how the recognize a situation presenting the concern, and how to effectively respond to the situation.

In sum, helping children and teenagers learn to engage in safe and responsible behavior involves imparting:

  • Knowledge about potential dangers or concerns and expectations or standards for responsible behavior.

  • Effective decision-making skills that include being able to recognize situations presenting concerns and knowing appropriate or effective responses to such situations.

  • Motivation to behave in a safe and responsible manner.

Application to Cyberspace

How do these basic lessons in raising safe and responsible children translate to the Internet? First and foremost, we have to recognize that even though we may be accessing the Internet from the safety of a classroom or family room, the Internet is very much a public place. Allowing young children to have supervised, open access to the Internet (filtered or not) without close supervision would be the equivalent of leaving a child to play unsupervised in New York City's Central Park.

When children are of elementary school age, their use of the internet should be primarily in "safe Internet spaces" -- environments that provide access to only previewed, educationally appropriate sites. Students in elementary school are too young to be fully informed about Internet dangers and too young to trust to engage in safe behavior in unsupervised environments. There are a variety of ways to establish these safe Internet spaces. The most common approaches are educational web sites and proxie servers. The Internet Content Rating Association (http://www.icra.org) technology offers a a new method to facilitate the establishment of such safe spaces.

Placing primary reliance on the current technology protection measures is insufficient protection for children of this age. These systems do not provide sufficiently reliable protection against accidental access to material that could be very disturbing to younger children. Environments that have been established for children on commercial systems, such as Yahooligans, present concerns for school because of the level of commercialism on the sites accessed through these systems. Such systems may be safe environments in terms of pornography, but they have not been established as educationally enriching environments. Too many of the sites accessed through these systems have been established for the purpose of promoting the sale of products to young people. A much greater emphasis must be placed on the establishment of appropriate educational environments for students.

If it is necessary for elementary age children to use the open Internet, they should do so only in highly structured environments with close "over-the-shoulder" supervision. These occasions provide the opportunity to introduce important safety skills.

Since children in elementary school are also using the Internet at home, parents should be provided with information on how to establish safe spaces on their system at home. Parents can be provided with specific information on establishing the school's educational portal as the default portal on their home browser. Parents should also be provided with Internet safety information that is appropriate for elementary age children.

The best time to begin to more fully instruct students about safe and responsible online behavior is the last year of elementary school or early in middle school. At this age, students will be demanding more freedom. They will also be old enough to understand issues related to the potential dangers or inappropriateness of certain materials and to successfully utilize safety skills.

Internet Safety Skills To Avoid Access to Inappropriate Material

There are three basic components for instruction on how to avoid the inadvertent access of inappropriate material and what to do if you make a mistake. Each component includes knowledge and skills.

The first component is "Read, think, then click." Students should know that when they do a search on a perfectly appropriate word, the results may lead them to totally inappropriate sites. Try searching on the word "beaver" or "cheerleader" for some good examples. Students often click on the search result before reading the description. This is the unsafe behavior that needs to be addressed. They need to know that before they click on a search result, they must read the search result description carefully. If there is language that appears to be inappropriate or if they are not sure where the link will take them, then they should not click on that link. For practice, students can be provided with example search returns and instructed to indicate by each search result whether the link is likely to lead to appropriate information or not.

The second component is "Type, check, then click." Students should know that sometimes people use URLs that are very similar to the URL for an appropriate site, hoping to trick people into accessing the porn site. The site www.whitehouse.com is a good example of this problem, but perhaps ought not be used for demonstration. Students often rapidly type a URL, then click to access the site before checking. Students may also guess about a URL, which will also lead to inappropriate sites. Students should be encouraged to establish a habit of typing the URL, then checking it to be sure it is correct, then clicking. They also need to know that they should never guess what the URL is. If they do not know the URL, they should use a search engine.

The third component is "Turn it off and tell." Students need to know that despite the best efforts they may end up at the wrong site. They also need to know that sometimes these kinds of sites use what people call "mouse-trapping." The sites disable the back button, open multiple screens, or use other techniques to trap people on the site. If a child access a site such as this, their first reaction will be shock. If we do not prepare them for this possibility, their second reaction will be fear, and this is the reaction that is the most damaging. We can avoid the fear reaction by empowering them to know what to do if they have gotten to the wrong place. They need to know that they must immediately quit the browser. And if they cannot do this, they should turn off the screen. Students also need to know that it is important for them to report this accidental access. This will protect them against a complaint that they have intentionally violated a school rule. The cookie file on the browser of any computer that has accessed an inappropriate site should be checked to make sure that no unwanted cookies were placed on the computer.

It is also important to focus our attention on the reasons why it is not OK to go to these sites. Recognize that the media companies have taught our teens that if they are not seeing or listening to adult-rated media materials, they are simply "not cool." Telling To address the question of how to help young people use information and communication technologies in an ethical manner, we must consider how young people learn to engage in an ethical behavior. Furthermore, we must examine how information and communication technologies and the emerging cyber environment may impact their learning and behavior.

It is also important to focus our attention on the reasons why it is not OK to go to these sites. Recognize that the media companies have taught our teens that if they are not seeing or listening to adult-rated media materials, they are simply "not cool." Telling teenagers that they are not old enough to look at this material is like painting a red bull's-eye on it. Instead, we need to focus on the underlying issues of violence, disrespect, hatred, harassment, and harm that these kinds of materials inflict and influence. If we focus on the teenage student's emerging personal identity and values and the community values of the school environment, we can establish that these materials simply do not reflect such values. These issues are best addressed in an integrated manner within other curriculum activities. For example, addressing sexually violent materials would be appropriate for study in sex education and media literacy studies; addressing hate literature would be appropriate in social science studies.

Addressing Issues of Responsible Behavior

To address the question of how to help young people use information and communication technologies in an responsible manner, we must consider how young people learn to engage in an responsible, ethical behavior. Furthermore, we must examine how information and communication technologies and the emerging cyber environment may impact their learning and behavior.

As young people grow, their emerging cognitive development enables them to gain increasingly accurate perceptions of the world around them. Three principal external influences combine with this emerging cognitive development to affect moral development and behavior. These factors are:

  • Recognition that an action has caused harm. When a young person engages in inappropriate action and recognizes that his or her action has caused harm to another, this leads to an empathic response, which leads to feelings of remorse.

  • Social disapproval. When a young person engages in inappropriate action and recognizes that others have become aware of and disapprove of this action, this leads to "loss of face" and feelings of shame.

  • Punishment by authority. When a young person engages in an inappropriate action and this action is detected by a person with authority over the young person, this leads to punishment imposed by the person in authority, which can lead to feelings of regret, but also can lead to anger at the authority.

These three external influences not only affect behavior in both young people and older people, they also play a major role in a young person's moral development. During adolescence, young people develop a sense of their own personal identity. This personal identity incorporates an internalized personal moral code. In adolescents and adults, our personal moral code functions as an internal influence for ethical and responsible behavior. Behavior is influenced both by the external factors, as well as the internalized moral code.

When we perceive that we have violated our own personal moral code, we feel guilty -- unless we can rationalize our actions in some manner. We are all willing, under certain circumstances to waiver from our personal moral code. We each have an internalized limit about how far we are willing to waiver from the ideal set forth in our personal moral code. This limit protects against unlimited transgressions. The boundaries of this limit vary according to each person.

There are a number of factors that appear to influence behavior that waivers from our personal moral code. We are more likely to waiver when our assessment is that:

  • There is an extremely limited chance or no chance of detection and punishment.

  • The transgression will not cause any perceptible harm.

  • The harm may be perceptible, but is small in comparison with the personal benefit we will gain.

  • The harm is to a large entity, such as a corporation, and no specific or known person will suffer any loss.

  • Many other people engage in such behavior, even though others may consider the behavior may be considered illegal or unethical.

  • The entity or individual that is or could be harmed by the action has engaged in unfair or unjust actions.

Impact of Information and Communication Technologies

Information and communication technologies have a profound impact on the external influences of behavior.

Technology does not provide tangible feedback. When people use technology, there is a lack of tangible feedback about the consequences of actions on others. People are distanced from a perception of the harm that their behavior has caused.

This lack of tangible feedback undermines the empathic response, and thus undermines feelings of remorse. The lack of tangible feedback makes it easier to rationalize an action.

Technology allows us to become invisible. In fact, people are not totally invisible when they use the Internet. In most cases, they leave "cyberfootprints" wherever they go. But, despite this reality, the perception of invisibility persists. Some actions using technology are quite invisible, such as borrowing a friend's software program and installing it on your own computer. It is also possible to increase the level of invisibility with the use of technology tools. Establishing a pseudonymous account enhances invisibility. The fact that many people may be engaged in a similar activity also leads to a perception of invisibility because individual actions are such a "drop in the pond" that they are unlikely to be detected.

Invisibility undermines the potential impact of both authority and social disapproval. If a transgression cannot be detected and a person is unlikely to be punished, threats of punishment are not likely to have any impact whatsoever on behavior.

The issue of the impact of invisibility on human behavior is not new. Plato raised this very same issue in his story about the Ring of Gyges. In this story, a shepherd found a magical ring. When the stone was turned to the inside, the shepherd became invisible. Thus questions were raised: How will we choose to behave if we are invisible? Will we do whatever we want to do because we know that nobody can catch and punish us? Will we do something that could hurt someone because we know that nobody can tell who did this? Or will we do what we know is right?

It is important to recognize that young people are using the Internet, and thus are influenced by the lack of tangible feedback and perceptions of invisibility, at the same time that they are in the process of developing their internalized personal moral code. We do not know how this will affect their development and internalization process.

Strategies to Address Lack of Tangible Feedback and Invisibility

Help young people learn to do what is right, regardless of the potential of detection and punishment. To do this, we must enhance their reliance on their own internalized personal moral code. We must shift our focus away from rules and threats of punishments. Threats of punishment are simply an ineffective approach when the likelihood of detection and punishment is so remote. The message: "Don't do this because it is against the rules" has limited impact if you believe that you are invisible and that your actions cannot and will not be detected and punished.

Instead, we must focus the attention of young people on the reasons for the rules. Rules are generally enacted because actions that violate the rules can cause harm to someone else. So our focus must be on the potential harm, not the rule. In a world where we are invisible, a much more powerful message is: "Don't do this because if you do you will harm someone by (describe the possible harmful impact of the action) "

Help young people understand how actions can cause harm to people they can not see. Empathy actually has two components -- a feeling component and a thinking component. When we see or hear someone who is happy or sad, we begin to feel the same way inside. This is the feeling part of empathy. As young people grow, they also gain the ability to understand cognitively how other people think and feel. They learn to look at things from their perspective. This is the thinking part of empathy. Thinking about how someone else feels can also affect how we feel inside. The lack of tangible feedback impairs the feeling component of empathy. We must help young people learn to rely on the thinking part of empathy when they use information technologies.

Help young people learn to use effective decision-making strategies to help guide their behavior in a responsible way. These strategies must be effective even though young people do not have tangible feedback and may perceive themselves to be invisible.

Remain "hand's on" while young people are learning these lessons. The children of parents who are "hand's on" -- that is know where their children are, what they are doing, and who they are doing it with -- and who keep lines of communication open , are much less likely to engage in risky behavior. When young people are using the Internet, responsible adults in their environment need to remain "hand's on." Effective supervision and monitoring are essential strategies to remain "hand's on."


It is recommended that readers review the Internet Safe and Responsible Use Plan that is included in the Template section which implements this essential strategy into the school environment. All of the additional materials set forth between this chapter and the template are the details.