Friday, April 19, 2002
Protecting kids on the Internet: What can parents, teachers, librarians do?
A student doing research on the Internet accidentally types in an address that brings up a pornography site. Middle school friends enter a chat room where gossip and rumors about classmates spread instantaneously. An instant messaging program is used to send a nasty message to someone in a new twist on bullying. How do students handle these Internet problems? How do parents help students deal with a tool that is sometimes misused?
The Internet opens a world of nearly limitless information to students, yet it also has sites that are inappropriate or harmful to children. At a recent Internet Safety night for parents and teachers at the Peabody Middle School in Concord, crime prevention officer Scott Camilleri discussed advice he gives to elementary and middle school students to teach them ways to deal with some of the dangers they can run into on-line. Some inappropriate sites for children include those that contain nudity, violent computer games, drug culture information or chat rooms with bullying taking place, he said.
Guest speaker Lieutenant John McLean of the Medford police, a computer crime specialist with the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, discussed some of his investigations involving Internet crime. Computer hacking, when someone attempts to break into a computer system, is treated as a breaking and entering crime to a computer system, he said. There is a teen subculture of computer hackers with hacker web sites. Other problems on the Internet include cyber-threats and harassment, teen nude web sites, and the availability of fake IDs. Some web sites instruct students how to purchase and print a form, add a photo and make an ID on an embossing machine.
To protect students McLean said, "Parents and teachers need to be more computer literate, and school network personnel need to be trained how to handle cyber crime." He also expressed the concern of many: "Kids are being exposed to more exploitation materials than ever today."
Computers in a central place
Parents should keep computers for kids in a central place in the home, not in a child's bedroom, particularly if the computer is connected to the Internet. They also need to set time limits for their child's computer use, "Just as kids aren't on the phone for hours, they shouldn't be on the Internet for hours," said Camilleri. He emphasized to parents the importance of supervising their children on the Internet as the best way to ensure their safety.
McLean gave parents a list of filtering and blocking software that can be installed on home computers for parents not around to monitor their child on the Internet, or those who want to be sure certain sites are never accessed. Filtering software blocks a computer's access to objectionable sites based on categories chosen by parents. However, while many programs are on the market, Consumer Reports said in a March 2001 article that only six percent of parents actually install filtering software on their home computers.
The best filters screen both URLs, or web addresses, and the content of web pages. The filtering tools use lists of words in various categories to block for example: pornography, cults, illegal activities or drugs, gambling, and hate and intolerance group sites. Parents can customize site blocking by choosing different categories of what to block. The lists of sites to be blocked is updated by the filtering company as new sites are added on the Internet.
America On-line also offers Parental Controls for users of its Internet service. The filtering service provided by AOL is located on AOL's server. It doesn't require separate filtering software to be installed on a home PC. With Parental Controls, parents customize filtering according to a child's age to block objectionable content on the web.
School uses filter
The Carlisle School's computers all have content filtering through its Internet service provided by the Merrimack Education Center (MEC) in Chelmsford. MEC provides centralized filtering, says network and technical support manager Carolynn Luby. The computer server at MEC filters the Internet, rather than having software installed at each computer at the school.
This year for the first time there is at least one Internet-connected computer in each classroom at the school. Students can use different search engines such as Yahoo or Google, but with restrictions imposed by the filtering software, says Luby. There haven't been any problems with inappropriate material slipping through the filter she says, but parents have reported some web sites discovered from their home computers. If there is a site causing concern, it is reported to MEC and blocked at the school in a matter of hours.
However, filtering is not without its problems, says librarian Sandy Kelly. "The problem with blocking is it sets up a sense of false security. Also, the software itself is faulty, because it can sometimes screen out useful information." Kelly finds web sites and develops project pages to point students and teachers to web sites that relate to current subjects being taught in the classes, weeding out irrelevant information and saving valuable search time. Students are encouraged to use the library computers for Internet research, but not for e-mail, says Kelly.
The school has an Acceptable Use Policy for Internet Use that gives rules for using the Internet. All parents and students read and sign the policy, a standard practice at schools today. Children must always be supervised by an adult when accessing the Internet at school.
To filter or not to filter: libraries and the debate
The Gleason Library does not use filtering software or restrict a patron's on-line access to information at the library, says Director Ellen Rauch. There is a downside to using commercial filters to control access to web sites, she said, "Access to information is not as good with filters because many sites are blocked. Also, the companies that develop the filtering software make the decisions about what is blocked." Rauch believes in open access so that people can conscientiously use the Internet and gain skill in using it.
There haven't been any problems with people accessing inappropriate web sites, except for a couple of "inadvertent instances" says Rauch. The library's bank of Internet-connected computers is centrally located in a high-traffic area of the library near the circulation desk.
Consortium votes not to filter
Because public libraries serve both adults and children, the decision on filtering content is not as clear-cut as it is for school libraries. It is up to individual libraries to install local filtering software if they choose, says Merrimack Valley Library Consortium (MVLC) Executive Director Larry Rungren. The 35 member libraries in MVLC, of which Carlisle is a member, have so far voted not to install filtering software on the consortium's central computers.
The majority of libraries have chosen not to install filters on their own local computers. Chelmsford, Ipswich, Georgetown and Middleton are the only towns that use local filtering software for either computers in their children's area or both children and adult computer areas, according to a recent membership survey by MVLC.
"Filtering software has a potential for blocking a great deal of material that is constitutionally protected," says Rungren. Further he believes that blocking software sometimes has a political agenda and blocks controversial sites such as homosexual or abortion rights group sites that are not pornographic, and are protected by the First Amendment.
Children's Internet Protection Act
Libraries across the country are watching the outcome of a lawsuit that could determine the fate of the Children's Internet Protection Act, (CIPA) signed into law by former President Clinton. CIPA, which was co-authored by Senator John McCain, seeks to protect children at public schools and libraries from viewing harmful graphic materials including pornography. The law specifies that federal grant money for Internet access can be withheld if a library does not comply by filtering the Internet.
While drafted with good intentions, it has sparked much controversy and debate. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association filed suits challenging the law on grounds it violates the First Amendment and freedom of speech and is a form of government censorship.
Federal funding amount small
Town libraries that belong to the consortium receive federal funding for Internet access through the consortium, which is reimbursed by federal grants. "If the Children's Internet Protection Act is upheld, the MVLC membership would have to decide if they want to comply with the law to receive the federal money, or not to comply," Rungren says.
In 2002, MVLC member libraries voted not to take steps to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act and to forego federal funding. Rungren says the decision not to comply only cost the consortium about $7,000 in federal reimbursements this year, or about $200 per member library. The small amount of money received from the government may be too insignificant to public libraries to make it worth complying with CIPA.
On the other hand, the Carlisle School with its student population has taken steps to fully comply with the July 1st deadline of the Children's Internet Protection Act, should it be upheld in court. School Business Manager Eileen Riley said Carlisle only received about $500 this year in a federal grant for Internet service, after spending a lot of time and labor completing paperwork. However, the school will continue to apply for the federal grant each year for two reasons: "We want to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act, because the technology grant could be tied to other federal reimbursements the school receives. Also, we want kids to be safe at school," she said.
A ruling in the case, now being deliberated by three federal judges in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, is expected in early May.
Chat room guidelines for children
(From Concord's Internet safety night)
· Form chat groups only with friends you know or people in your class.
· Never enter a chat room without learning what the chat room is about.
· Never chat with strangers on-line.
· Never give out any personal information to strangers on-line.
· Never tell someone where you'll be or agree to meet in person with anyone you meet on-line, without your parents knowing about it and approving it, or at least being present.
· Never enter an area that will cost additional money.
· Never send a picture over the Internet to someone you don't know.
· Notify a parent right away if a stranger contacts you over the Internet, or if you accidentally access a web site that contains inappropriate material.
Filtering the Internet
(Software that blocks access to certain sites)
· Cyber Sentinel
· Cyber Patrol
· Norton Internet Security, Family Edition (Also includes a firewall, antivirus and privacy protection software)
· Net Nanny
· Some filtering products require an annual subscription fee to update the list of sites to block. Some products are available for Macintosh as well as the PC.
· For information on filtering used at the Carlisle school:
www.mecnet.net/internet Select the filtering topic.
Search engines for kids:
www.AJKIDS.COM (Ask Jeeves for Kids, a filtered search engine)
www.YAHOOLIGANS.COM (A database of about 20,000 sites that are kid-safe)
These sites have Internet safety information for parents:
www.software4parents.com (Commercial site that sells software)
CyberTipline: 1-800-843-5678, www.cybertipline.com
(Investigates reports of on-line crimes against children, including URLs, or web addresses of suspected sites.)
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito