Quality Approved Sites
When the internet first became available for use in the classroom, teachers were focused on making sure to keep their students safe from inappropriate content such as foul language and pornography. As the internet has evolved, so has the approach of teachers to keep their students safe. Many districts, including my own, use system wide server blocks and filters that automatically weed out potentially inappropriate sites and images for their view. While these filters are a great first-line of defense, they are not perfect and it is always possible for students to happen upon inappropriate content they are not intended to see.
What do we as educators do to help navigate through problematic situations where students come across inappropriate content? Richardson (2010) argues that all teachers need to have in-depth conversations with their students before they embark on an online assignment or project. If students are prepped ahead of time how to properly navigate and search only for their intended content the learning activities tend to go more smoothly. For younger students who may not be able to easily navigate the internet, it might be necessary for teachers to preselect certain websites for the students to utilize. Although this can be more time-intensive for the teacher on the front-end of the assignment, it allows the student to focus their efforts on gaining the content from the internet, not just finding sites that have what they need. As students reach middle school and have had experience using quality sites, they are more able to become explores of the internet and find their own quality resources. This is not possible to do unless the teacher has spent time showing the students how to safely explore, what quality resources look like, and also what to do when you come across something that is not appropriate.
My school is fortunate to have four technology classes that all of our students cycle through as a connections course. These teachers have taken it upon themselves to make sure all students in our middle school are made aware of how to correctly search for content and how to quickly back out of a site that they feel is inappropriate. In addition to these classes I also like to spend time at the beginning of any internet assignment where I am asking the students to freely explore the web by giving tips and keywords that can be used when exploring.
As crimes increase that are linked to the internet, agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are elevating their efforts to make people of all ages aware of the importance of internet safety. To help educate school-aged children the FBI has created the Cyber Surf Islands. Through this part of the FBI website teachers can sign-up their classes to go through “islands” that have been engineered to fit third-eighth grade students. On each of these islands the students are introduced to certain characters and events that help teach them the important of safe online surfing.
As the internet grew from a read-only resource to a read/write resource internet safety also grew from just finding appropriate content to creating and publishing appropriate, safe content as well. It is common to search social media sites or blogs that students produce and find them riddled with inappropriate content. Inappropriate content might be the inclusion of too much personal information such as first and last name or information such as their address or phone number, to images or text that are not viewed as age-appropriate.
Stranger danger is something that is typically covered by teachers and counselors at an early age in schools and while that was once viewed as not taking candy from a stranger, it has shifted to a focus on not engaging in conversations with strangers on the internet. Too often criminals use the internet to target young people by parading as someone younger and innocent who just wants to be their friend. The counselor at my school engaged my classes in a great activity by having them read through the transcripts of two people chatting on the internet. What seemed like a series of innocent conversations about mundane life as an adolescent turned out to be much more than that. After reading through the texts the students were asked to find instances where the young girl had given clues as to where she might live. By the end of the activity the students were able to piece together enough information to figure out exactly where the girl lived and how to find her. They then found out that the other person involved in the conversations was actually an undercover police officer working to teach the community about internet safety and predator danger. As homework, the students were asked to go home and look at their own social media accounts and see how many clues they could find that would lead a stranger to know where they live and how to find them in real life. The conversations in class the next day were alarming. Many of my students admitted that they had their address, phone number, and name all clearly labeled for anyone to see. Others felt like they gave away an abundance of personal information that was not needed. These kinds of lessons need to be happening in every classroom to make students aware.
Richardson (2010) urges teachers to ask their students to think about what they are posting and publishing online and how they will feel if someone comes across it in five to ten years. While many things seem harmless to students in seventh grade, they are unaware of the digital footprint that is being created that future employers and colleagues will be able to go back and find for years to come. Even though we hit the delete button on the computer or never sign back-in to an email account or social media account does not mean that it is not out there in cyberspace for people to find and explore.
Internet safety is not just something that educators need to be aware of and stressing to children; parents must also be involved with internet safety. Digital citizenship responsibilities extend beyond the school walls to anywhere the student has access to the internet. In a school situation like mine where my students also have an opportunity to rent the computers to take home, it is important not only to have parents sign-off for their children to access the internet, but also to teach the parents safety tips and how to monitor their child’s digital footprint.
In one situation I have dealt with this year, a family decided they wanted their child to be able to bring home a computer for educational purposes. This was the first at-home computer the child had been able to use because the family felt it had not been something they wanted to provide on their own even though they had the finances to do so. It was recently found that through the use of the computer at home the student had created social media accounts and was posting inappropriate pictures of gang signs and apparel as well as using foul language in their posts. The family was astonished at what they found when they finally realized their child had created a social media account. As highly-educated parents, they were terrified and immediately came to the school and requested that the child no longer be allowed to bring the computer home. They were so shocked that this had happened to them because they viewed their family as a wholesome family with high expectations and never thought their sweet child would do something like this.
To help parents like these, there are several sites that have been made available to educate parents of internet safety. Kid’s Health is one such site that gives a great list of tips that would have helped these parents such as asking for passwords and monitoring the child’s accounts on a daily basis. Another beneficial aspect of Kid’s Health is that they provide the same content in appropriate language for parents, kids, and teens.
Another online resource that parents and schools can utilize to increase internet safety is Pure Sight. Pure Sight offers not only wonderful tips for any internet user on their website, but also a program that can be downloaded on to any device connected to the internet that can serve as a filter or parental control. Many parents complain about how their child stays up too late at night surfing the internet or chatting with friends; this program allows parents to put a curfew on internet usage so that they no longer have to worry about how late they are searching the internet or chatting.
As educators who are putting devices in the hands of students to search the web and participate in contributing to the larger body of knowledge that is available on the internet we are responsible for making sure that all parties are aware of the risks and steer them in the correct way of finding what they need. To aide in this effort, my coworkers and I are already planning a parent night for our school to bring light to the issue of internet safety and provide them with tips and resources that will make them more educated in monitoring the digital footprint their child is creating.
Richardson, W. (2010). Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms. (3rd ed.). Thousand Oak, California: Corwin.