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Internet safety: Whose job to teach kids about it?

Debate persists on whose responsibility it is – parents or teachers – to instruct young people in Internet safety.

By Staff writer / February 26, 2010

Only about half of school districts require Internet safety lessons as part of their curriculum.

Newscom/File

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The proverbial “village” could be doing a better job of raising America’s young people to be safe and ethical online, a new cybersafety survey suggests.

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Only about half of school administrators report that their districts require lessons in online safety as part of their curriculum. About four out of 10 teachers have taught nothing about security issues such as changing passwords or avoiding the dangers of social networking sites in the past 12 months. And three out of 10 have taught nothing about online ethics.

“There’s no national consensus around what we are supposed to be teaching kids about being participants in a digital age,” says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, a nonprofit that commissioned the survey.

As cyberbullying-linked student suicides and computer hacking continue to make headlines, nearly all educators and school technology coordinators agree it’s important to teach about cybersecurity and cyberethics. But “there seems to be some confusion about who is supposed to be doing it and how much they’re supposed to be doing,” Mr. Kaiser says. The survey found that seven out of 10 teachers think parents should be primarily responsible for cybersafety lessons. But nearly half of school administrators say teachers should be primarily responsible.

Many teachers feel ill-prepared to help students navigate the online world. More than three-quarters of those surveyed say their professional development in the past year has included less than six hours related to cybersafety and cyberethics.

Schools are much more likely to have shielded students from certain content than to have integrated lessons about appropriate behaviors into their curriculum, the survey found.

“We need to understand that teenagers can easily bypass filters.... It’s not possible to keep them in electronically fenced playyards,” says Nancy Willard, a consultant in Eugene, Ore., who runs her own Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. “What we have to do is empower them with the knowledge, skills, and values to make good choices,” she says.

Schools make the most progress when they take a holistic approach, she says, realizing that troubling behaviors such as bullying usually crop up both online and in other contexts. Ms. Willard has made materials available on her website in an attempt to boost teachers’ training.

The survey found that 28 percent of teachers had addressed how to react to online harassment in the past year, and 22 percent had taught about “sexting.” The survey included responses from 1,003 teachers, 400 administrators, and 200 school technology coordinators. In the ethics category, teachers were most likely to have addressed plagiarism (56 percent) and downloading music and videos (27 percent).

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