Protecting Our Children From the Internet

(and the World)

Schools are caught up in a very important debate right now. Just how much and what kinds of access should students have to the richly varied and sometimes offensive or frightening resources available to those who drive onto the Electronic Highway? At the heart of this matter is the question any responsible educator or parent must ask . . . How can we best protect our children from information and experiences which are potentially damaging while simultaneously protecting individual and family rights to access?

As we consider these questions, we must also ask to what extent the risks we identify with the Internet are truly related to the new technology or are risks more generally associated with being alive. Some of the strategies we have used with great success to teach children about risks in daily life work well with the risks associated with the Internet.


The Risk of the Street, the Outlet and the Stove
Supervision, Boundaries and Barriers
Family Values

Adolescent Rebellion
The Internet: Paradise Lost or Paradise Found?
Control, Choice and Guidance
Censorship vs. Guidance
The Bottom Line

I. The Risk of the Street, the Outlet and the Stove

Within the first years of life we must teach our children not to run out onto the street, not to probe electrical outlets with sharp objects, not to touch the hot stove, not to stick toys down their throats, not to touch strange dogs, not to take candy from strangers, not to allow "wrong touching," not to watch violent TV shows, not to play near the swimming pool, etc., etc., etc.

We establish clear rules and we set boundaries. In most cases we try to explain the danger in terms a child might understand. "HOT!" we warn the child with a fierce and troubled expression, as the child reaches toward the hot burner.

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II. Supervision, Boundaries and Barriers

As guardians of the young, we make judgments about how much supervision a child requires at various ages to protect her or him from harm. When the risk is extremely high, we tend to keep the child within sight or we erect some kind of structure like a fence around a pool to reduce the chances of a fatal drowning. Many communities require such fences whether the parents think they need them or not. We may plug plastic into electrical outlets and put away all the sharp tools and poisons. We may keep the child in a play-pen when we cannot watch every moment or we keep the child in a "child-proof room" with a gate across the door while we hurry about some task.

As children mature, we begin to rely less and less upon physical barriers, trying to teach them to respect boundary lines and values without being tied down, locked in or physically blocked from entry. We expect our children to begin exercising judgment and restraint.

This expectation only makes sense as the young person begins moving toward adult life. Self control is an essential element in the development of an independent, well balanced adult member of society. We hope and expect that our children will begin to adopt certain values as their own, "internalizing" a distaste for cruelty, for greed, for wanton destruction, for dishonesty and for other things we have identified as negatives. At the same time, we hope they will come to cherish certain traditions, behaviors and attitudes which we hold dear.

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III. Family Values

For most of us, these values are a family matter. The list will differ greatly from family to family depending upon the religious orientation, the philosophy, the experience and the politics of the parents. Some families, for example, have a relaxed attitude toward nudity and will stand in an art museum admiring a male body with their young children while others would steer their children clear and try to shield them from the sight. Some would see the statue as an educational opportunity. Others would see it as a threat.

Some families expect that lessons about cancer and tobacco might convince their children not to smoke. They discuss these risks with their children and make non-smoking a family rule. Other families may decide to ignore the risks of smoking, filling their cars and their living rooms with smoke that their children will share. They may make rules against cigarettes for their young just like the first family.

In a free society, the range of belief systems held dear by families is very broad and the attitudes toward rules, supervision and boundaries are likely to be divergent and varied.

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IV. Adolescent Rebellion

When the child reaches 12 and 13, she or he might sneak a cigarette with a group of friends. During the teen-age years, children make a transition from dependency to independence. The values which parents tried to share and the rules and boundaries which accompanied them, are all likely to undergo a serious review as adolescents begin sorting and sifting through what Mom and Dad may have taught them.

It is not unusual at this time for young people to flirt with danger and do the opposite of what they have been taught. It is a life phase filled experimentation and boundary testing. Even the strictest, sternest and most vigilant parents will find it difficult to monitor and control the activities of their children. Ironically, the experimentation may be most pronounced with those parents who provide no structure and with those who are extraordinarily structured. It is clear that young people need to grow up with clear values and clear structures which are grounded on reason. If the structures are grounded upon reason, they stand more chance of surviving the tests of adolescence.

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V. The Internet: Paradise Lost or Paradise Found?

The information sources available on the Internet are as rich, varied and potentially damaging and destructive as the world itself. The Internet is a "Gateway" which leads adult or child to the sublime or the obscene. To some extent, each person's definition of the Net will be formed by the choices made while visiting.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

John Milton (1608-74)

A fool's paradise is a wise man's hell!

Thomas Fuller (1608-61)

(The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations)

Adam and Eve, according to the Bible, were living in Paradise until they tasted the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. They were subsequently banished and their descendants were forever burdened with original sin.

As Browning puts it . . .


Where the apple reddens
Never pry-
Lest we lose our Edens,
Eve and I.

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

For more quotations about Paradise

In what ways is the Internet like the tree of knowledge? The Internet may represent considerable risk. One can find much of the disturbing visual content available on cable TV, but with less motion and sound. One can find personal ads and mail opportunities as illicit and potentially threatening as those freely available in printed local newspapers and circulars in coffee shops and restaurants around town. One can find instructions for bomb-making like those in magazines available through the mails. There is content and there are messages on the Net which should turn the stomach and inspire the outrage of any caring, thinking person.

But the Internet may offer great insights and opportunities for learning. A student may gain fresh data and information about foreign countries and health topics which may far surpass in quality the resources available in the typical "hard copy" library. A student may enjoy electronic mail exchanges with experts from around the world as well as other students from other countries.

With such a range of good and evil, how do schools and parents decide what kind of "gateway" they will provide?

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VI. Control, Choice and Guidance

The choice for schools is different, it seems to me, than it is for parents, in that schools must come up with procedures which meet the needs of the full spectrum of students, while parents may customize their family Internet access to meet the family values. The choice for schools with broad Internet access (every desktop in a wide area network) may also be different than it is for schools which have a single modem access in the school library.

The following guidelines make sense for schools with broad access. The basic principle governing this set of procedures is the value of guiding students toward information sources which have already been tested and proven valuable and acceptable for classroom use. This approach, when combined with individual access permitted through parent permission, avoids censorship, since full access is an option families may select.

1) Distinguish between supervised, curriculum-related use of the Internet (available to all students) on the one hand, and independent use of the Internet (available only to those with parent permission).

2) Identify curricular and developmentally appropriate sites in advance for each grade level of the district and make these available as "pages" on the World Wide Web server. If students are exploring volcanoes in fourth grade as a class activity, they are provided with a page of approved sites. They are told they must stay at those sites. No browsing. No surfing. Treat any wandering as a boundary violation with loss of privilege or other appropriate consequence.

3) Allow students who have parent permission to conduct independent research with more latitude outside of the structured class inquiries. Avoid situations with mixed levels of access (teams with guided access working in the same lab with other teams with unlimited access) so as to reduce conflict and resentment.

4) Provide course options at the secondary levels which involve research on the Internet with full access and parental permission. Groups of students with complete access may then explore topics with a broader sweep of resources.

To see how such an approach translates into school district policy and procedures, check out the

Bellingham Public Schools policy

While some may be uncomfortable with an approach which restricts browsing and what is popularly called "surfing," the information on the Net is often so poorly organized that hours of exploration can lead to endless blind alleys or poor quality. Particularly since access to the Internet is somewhat limited even in districts with WANs, the educators have some responsibility to point students toward worthwhile sites.

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VII. Censorship vs. Guidance

Software packages which block students from sites containing potentially offensive materials are currently popular in some circles and in some school districts. It is tempting to install such programs and defer to the judgment of outside panels. Once installed, however, all students in the school, regardless of parental and family values, will be blocked from such information.

The ALA (American Library Association) guidelines for books and other materials in libraries make it clear that such blocking of information violates freedom of access to information which should be a family decision.

Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents - and only parents - have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children - and only their children - to library resources. Parents or legal guardians who do not want their children to have access to certain library services, materials or facilities, should so advise their children. Librarians and governing bodies cannot assume the role of parents or the functions of parental authority in the private relationship between parent and child. Librarians and governing bodies have a public and professional obligation to provide equal access to all library resources for all library users.

An Interpretation of the LIBRARY BILL OF RIGHTS

I am reminded of a family experience with AIDS information. In 1989 my daughter spent a year convincing the administration of her high school to permit an assembly for students outlining the risks of AIDS and how they might minimize them. Any student not wishing to attend might be excused. An evening meeting was scheduled with parents prior to the assembly to provide an opportunity to meet the speaker.

A half dozen parents showed up who opposed any school discussion of AIDS or any strategies to reduce the risk. They insisted that students should simply "say no." As leader of the club sponsoring the assembly, my daughter tried to convince them that many students who were sexually active needed such information because they were being careless, but the group refused to listen and called the administration the next morning to protest. The assembly was canceled.

As a parent who wanted my daughter to receive such information, I was incensed that this small group could block hundreds of students from potentially life-saving information, especially since all students were permitted to miss the assembly if they wished. While I respected the religious beliefs and other attitudes which might prompt them to shield their own children from such information, I resented their attempt to force those same beliefs upon my own child.

It turned out that most of the school community was also shocked and dismayed. Several days of phone calls, letters, peaceful demonstrations and other forms of pressure convinced the administration to reinstate the assembly.

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A balanced approach to the Internet in schools emphasizes guidance rather than censorship. We select sites which support our curriculum. We point our students toward developmentally appropriate information. And we permit them latitude if their parents request it.

More Quotations About Paradise

Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the U.S. is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. There is no other.
Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), French semiologist. America, "Utopia Achieved" (1986; tr. 1988).

The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations
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