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Parental involvement is key

Experts say parents must take responsibility for their children's online actions, while schools, instead of filtering content, should develop acceptable-use policies for students and parents.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 23, 1999


Adults do the darndest things, especially on the Internet.

Take, for example, a middle school teacher who thought an online scavenger hunt would be a good way to show students how to find information on the Net. It turned out to be more of a lesson than the teacher, students and parents expected.

Included in the facts to be found was the Web address for the White House. The correct address is www.whitehouse.gov, but some students and parents instead found a porn site with a similar address.

University of South Florida professors Ilene and Michael Berson tell the story, not to discourage use of the Internet in schools but rather to encourage parents, teachers and others to learn more about the online world so it can be used effectively -- and safely -- in education and at home.

"I wish I had the Internet when I was a public school teacher," said Michael Berson, an assistant professor in social science education. "There are so many exciting things to do."

The issue, of course, goes beyond a teacher unfamiliar with the ways of the Web. Parents worry about strangers preying on their kids in chat rooms and through e-mail, and adult entertainment sites that try to lure kids in. Increasingly, they are concerned about advertising aimed at kids and privacy issues related to direct marketers.

"Parents will tell us that they're very concerned about this and they're doing a lot of site protection," said Davis Masten, a principal at market research firm Cheskin Research (www.cheskin.com) in Redwood Shores, Calif. "But in fact they are not paying attention to what kids are doing. They have busy lives, and in a sense the Internet is something they hope will keep the kid busy and informed."

Kids are spending seven hours a week or more online, more than in a survey two years ago by Cheskin. Masten attributes the increase to more kids going online. "It's less for geeks than for teens in general," he said. And teens have more money to spend, making them a lucrative target for marketers.

"I don't think teens want to get bombarded with stuff that they don't want," Masten said. "The kids have got the control here, and the marketers have less control than they did in the past."

According to a survey by Cheskin and Cyberteens.com of 2,759 teens:

-- 45 percent fear bad people who disguise themselves online, but only 1 percent expressed concerns about pornography.

-- 22 percent fear loss of privacy through the Web, which a majority see as a place for friends, fun and freedom.

-- 43 percent have their own Web site, and a substantial portion hope to use the Web for business ventures.

Masten cautions against reading too much into survey results and interviews in which teens say they have little or no interest in sex-related materials. "If we were looking at the cookies to see where the boys had gone, that kind of natural curiosity has not gone away," said Masten, referring to the code Web sites leave on a user's computer hard drive to track repeat visits.

Concerns about kids and the Internet increased in the spring after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., because one of the shooters had created a Web site filled with angry and threatening messages. Experts say, though, that most kids online are little different from kids at a mall: chatting, sending notes, shopping and reading about music, sports, celebrities and other favorite topics.

Sure, teens push the limits on some things, but lawyer, author and online safety expert Parry Aftab characterized it as no more than youthful exuberance: going into chat rooms and making inflammatory comments just to get a reaction, for example.

"Kids aren't doing the real dark side" of sex and violence, said Aftab, who wrote A Parent's Guide to the Internet and is executive director of CyberAngels (www.cyberangels.com), a group devoted to online safety. "For the most part, the stuff that's online is wonderful and they're using it for what we want it to be used for."

Online crime, particularly adults preying on kids for sex, gets a lot of publicity, Aftab said, but she estimates that only about 500 cases a year are made by law enforcement.

The Bersons, who last month were appointed to a United Nations advisory committee examining children's online safety, say the Internet in some ways poses no more of a threat to children than the outside world.

"Crime in general on the Internet reflects crime in general in society," said Ilene Berson, who is on the faculty at the Department of Child and Family Studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute.

But the Internet's anonymity might encourage someone to prey on children from the safety of his home, something he might not do in public, Ilene Berson said.

That makes teaching about the Internet different from traditional safety messages, experts say.

"Our kids know about the dangers of walking in a bad neighborhood and they know who they run into in a bad neighborhood," Aftab said. "Online, you don't know who you're dealing with and parents don't know enough about how to train them."

She criticizes schools for not training teachers adequately, for putting up Web sites that can include students' personal e-mail addresses and for not cautioning students about guarding their privacy online. (Florida received high marks in an Education Week magazine survey last year for its funding of school technology and for requiring that a portion of the money be used for teacher training.)

"The schools are totally clueless, because some of the biggest dangers kids face are in school," Aftab said.

Instead of worrying about filtering content, Aftab says, schools should be developing acceptable-use policies that students and parents must sign before a child goes online. A child who violates the agreement loses online privileges.

Parents, Aftab and others say, have to be more involved with their kids online and knowledgeable about what's out there. Aftab points to a program in Baltimore, Parents Internet Education (www.bcpl.net/sullivan/pie/index.html), as an example of how to get parents into the schools.

The program, co-sponsored by the school system and public library, included a televised town meeting to discuss Internet safety issues as well as seminars for parents. Now, Aftab says, teenagers are preparing safety tips and will act as an online safety patrol for other youths.

In the Tampa Bay area, Middleton Middle School of Technology in Tampa pioneered a parent training program about six years ago that has spread to other Hillsborough County schools.

There also are efforts outside the schools to help parents. Last month, the Internet Education Foundation started a site (www.getnetwise.org) with links and tips. The group's partners include companies such as America Online, AT&T, Bell Atlantic, MCI WorldCom, Microsoft Corp. and Disney Online.

The technology industry had limited choices: Do something or let Congress handle it, said IEF chairman Jerry Berman, who also is executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. The center was part of the effort in the courts that struck down Congress' first attempt at protecting kids online, the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Having parents babysit their kids while online isn't practical, filtering software runs into problems because people have different ideas on what is objectionable, and letting the government set standards would trample adults' free speech rights, Berman says.

"Parents have to accept responsibility," Berman said, "or their kids will be exposed to material that they find objectionable."

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Times photo -- MELISSA LYTTLE

J Stephen Kowski, 14, spends 15 to 20 hours a week on the computer, mostly on sports Web sites, playing games or chatting. His father, Stan, sent Stephen to the American Computer Experience, a two-week camp for children ages 8 to 16 at Rollins College in Winter Park.

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