Threshing Out the Myths and Facts of Internet Safety

A Response to “Separating Wheat from Chaff”

 

Michael J. Berson, Ilene R. Berson, and M. Elizabeth Ralston

In “Separating Wheat from Chaff: Why Dirty Pictures are not the Real Dilemma in Using the Internet to Teach Social Studies” (Social Education, March 1998), Fred Risinger has delved into the disputed issue of managing students’ exposure to debris on the Internet.1 The mere possibility of children exploring freely in a medium replete with explicit sexual images has incited controversy, as opponents’ calls for censorship become more fervent and emotionally charged. Risinger’s challenge to the burn and purge sentiment that promotes a cleansing of pornographic material on the World Wide Web is a valiant attempt to call attention to the problem while modeling a critical analysis of the issues. However, by identifying student access to “dirty pictures” as not the real dilemma facing educators and policymakers, he may have inadvertently created a risk that the issue of pornography and sexually oriented material focused on children will be discounted as a problem by the very people who serve as a critical line of defense in the protection of children from maltreatment.

Risinger identifies the development of student skills in evaluating and validating information as the real problem schools must address. The Internet has become part of our social system, but it may create problems for the social studies teacher, if that teacher is threatened by loss of control over the information available to students. Since it is never possible to be 100% successful in creating a safe environment, Risinger is correct in promoting the development of students’ critical thinking and analysis skills so that young people may become more able to recognize deceptive and potentially threatening information. After all, there is value in using the information available on the Internet to teach students to “look for, examine, and either support or debunk information.”

However, the shift of attention away from sexually explicit material on the Internet and on to the shoulders of students, by making it their responsibility to evolve their information skills, implies that students have the capacity to manage the process of data analysis and the means to be critical consumers. There remains a prevalent myth that children can be given responsibility to keep themselves safe from offending adults; but the ultimate responsibility for protecting children rests with adults. No level of safety training can ensure that a student will be prepared to recognize and respond to danger. Even with adult guidance and supervision, children may still encounter problematic situations. There should be an ongoing dialogue over the kinds of websites that are appropriate, as well as clear identification of areas that are off limits. Teachers should outline explicit rules regarding access to content on the Internet, and set out reasonable consequences for violations. If adults are unaware of the perpetual risk that exists, they may not “see” abuse as it occurs, leaving the responsibility to prevent harm on the fragile shoulders of a child.

Attitudes can contribute to safety or risk. In support of child safety, each school setting must identify any barriers to the creation and maintenance of a safe environment. Common barriers include individual and organizational attitudes, beliefs, and defense mechanisms; lack of knowledge and awareness of what is out there on the web; and lack of resources to deal with it. Moreover, the most intensive training in evaluating information does not always protect children from the motives of individuals who seek to exploit or abuse them. Although supervision and monitoring may decrease the risk to children, abuse may occur even when a child is not isolated. Grooming activities (creating a relationship with a child to make him or her more susceptible to sexual abuse) and actual abuse do take place in the open with others present. Therefore, schools need to remain aware of the potential for harm, and be prepared to respond to children’s needs for protection.

In addition to teaching, educators are expected to safeguard children and exert reasonable effort to protect students from harm. But in order to intervene for the protection of children, educators must be willing to acknowledge and identify the risks. Avoidance, denial, and minimization of issues surrounding the victimization of children have blinded many professionals to the difficult and unpleasant reality of abuse. Often, rationalizations are used to justify inaction on the part of adults. After all, many individuals are invested in preserving the myth of the safe shroud of the classroom setting, where children may engage in computer exploration impervious to obscene, pornographic, violent, racist, or otherwise offensive material that pervades our society. However, the reality of the Internet is that it provides relative anonymity without system-imposed restraints, and children and youth who remain naive regarding online relationships are vulnerable to crime and exploitation.

Risinger has suggested that external controls are available to “block” students’ access to pornography on the Internet. True, there are options for limiting the areas that students may access in cyberspace. Software is available for installation on computers to label or filter content on the web. Moreover, many Internet providers and online services offer site blocking, restrictions on incoming e-mail, and children’s accounts that access specific services. Online services often offer these controls at no additional cost.

The purpose of filtering software is to create an environment in which children may interact online in a safe, educational, and entertaining context. Internet filters can assist in safeguarding children by enabling parents and/or teachers to block inappropriate sites or restrict access to certain times of the day. The software often includes lists of researched sites that contain child friendly information. These applications screen websites when a user attempts to gain access, evaluating the location with a predetermined database of approved and blocked sites. Pre-established lists of blocked sites can be overridden either to allow greater access or to further restrict online exploration. Some software also provides features that prevent children from divulging personal information, such as name, age, address, phone number, or school name to online acquaintances through websites and chat rooms.

Despite the availability of safeguards, students’ curiosity and emerging computer knowledge often enable them to circumvent restrictions. Children who have overcome the external controls provided by filters and other checks report that access to sexually explicit information is simple. In fact, they often view its discovery as a challenge. Consequently, responsible adults need to remain accountable for continuous involvement in and supervision of students’ online activities.

The analogy some draw to “swimming on a beach without a lifeguard” may be an overstatement as it relates to benign misinformation obtained from websites. However, it is not an overstatement regarding the risk to students from sexually explicit information and sexual predators who purposefully frequent the Internet. Web users are often reminded that incidents of victimization on the Internet occur at rates comparable to incidents in the real world. Barriers to identifying and reporting abuse have resulted in a severe underreporting of child sexual abuse in general. It is estimated that only 20% of cases reach professional attention.2 With the incidence of child sexual abuse considered to be 2 to 20 times greater than what is reported to law enforcement and child protective service agencies,3 prevalence estimates suggest that approximately 20% of girls and 10% of boys under age 18 have been sexually victimized.4 Children are often ambivalent about reporting sexual abuse, which typically involves betrayal, coercion, deception, and subsequent strong feelings of shame and self-blame for the abuse. This situation may be exacerbated by cases of online exploitation.

Faulty or invalid information obtained from websites for social studies assignments may be easily identified through teacher/student dialogue. Information from a sexual predator will not likely be identified, as it is “secret,” and disclosure creates embarrassment and possible risk to the student. If educators choose to deny that any real dilemma exists in using the Internet, students may lack the support of well-established mechanisms for safety and formal intervention.

Risinger seems to have separated out the “dirty pictures” issue from the “real issue,” and as a result has discounted the risk sexual predators on the Internet pose to children. Instead, Risinger has focused educators on the “real risk” of students being unable to discriminate information that is invalid or nonfactual, thereby granting secondary importance to issues of emotional and physical well-being. This action may serve to protect those who seek out children (students) on the Internet for illicit purposes. Potential perpetrators look for opportunities to interact with children where there is minimal supervision or where external controls are easy to circumvent. Children are at great risk in the many sites and chat rooms that contain covert sexual stimulus, a reality that underlines the importance of remaining attentive to issues of child safety.

The belief that external controls will protect children from sexual predators on the Internet is an example of failing to look for, evaluate, and validate information. We need to identify this issue as a real dilemma, and not to minimize the physical and emotional risks to children from sexual predators in order to promote students’ free access online to information useful to the social studies. As we consider the impact of the Internet on children, let us not discount one type of danger in favor of another. As educators and advocates for children, we must be open to considering how our students may be affected by technology, and vigilant in responding to the needs of children for the sake of both safety and learning.

 

Notes

1. C. Frederick Risinger, “Separating Wheat from Chaff: Why Dirty Pictures Are Not the Real Dilemma in Using the Internet to Teach Social Studies,” Social Education 62 (March 1998): 148-150.

2. D. Finkelhor, Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research (New York: Free Press, 1984).

3. T. F. Wynkoop, S. C. Capps, and B. J, Priest, “Incidence and Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse: A Critical Review of Data Collection Procedures,” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 4 (1995): 49-66.

4. D. Finkelhor, “Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse,” The Future of Children 31 (1994).

 

Michael J. Berson is an assistant professor of Social Science Education at the University of South Florida, Tampa. He can be reached via e-mail at berson@tempest.coedu.usf.edu.

Ilene R. Berson is a faculty member in the Department of Child and Family Studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida, Tampa. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

M. Elizabeth Ralston is the executive director of Lowcountry Children’s Center, Charleston, South Carolina, and specializes in the forensic assessment and treatment of victimized children and their families.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.