One of the hardest things to do when you're a parent is to teach your kids to be safe. Parents, of course, talk to their kids about safety all the time. But do the youngsters listen? My wife and I often joke that we need to carry tape recorders around so that we can play and replay our safety warnings – maybe then we wouldn't have to endlessly repeat the advice ourselves.
And when you're dealing with Internet safety, it can be even harder. The dangers online don't seem all that dangerous when you're 8 or 9, let alone when you're 15 and you think you're invincible. After all, it's just a computer – no one can hurt you, right? And many parents don't know as much about the Internet as their kids do.
But the danger is there, and the biggest fear online is sexual predators. A 2006 study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that about 13 percent of Internet users ages 10 to 17 received unwanted sexual solicitations. Teens were by far the biggest target – 90 percent of the solicitations. And about 4 percent said they were asked for nude photos of themselves.
So, once again, we turn to our schools to pick up the slack. And in Virginia that means mandatory Internet safety for all students in all grades. Virginia is not the only state doing this; Texas and Illinois are also teaching online safety to students, although as of this school year, Virginia is the only state where it's a mandate.
So how do you teach children about Internet safety? Virginia is using a varied approach rather than offering an actual class in Internet safety. There doesn't seem to be a lot of guidelines for this particular project, but the division of Educational Technology has prepared a 17-page pamphlet that teachers can use in elementary, middle, and high schools, although it seems heavy on suggestions and light on specifics.
For instance, English teachers are encouraged to get their students to write about Internet safety, or about any scary experiences online, as a way to discuss it in class. History teachers can use part of a "Safety Tips with Officer Buckle and Gloria" package that deals with Internet safety.
At higher grade levels, the most popular approach seems to be presentations in front of assemblies of students, where guest speakers talk about the dangers of putting up too much information about yourself on Facebook or MySpace. High school teachers are also encouraged to integrate it into day-by-day lessons in the classroom.
This just brings me back to my original question – does it really work? So I went to an expert, my 12-year-old son Liam, who is both an experienced Internet user and a student in Virginia public schools.
Liam confirmed for me that he's never had an actual class about Internet safety in his middle school, but that teachers do talk to them about it.
"They'll tell us to be careful before we go into the computer lab, to not go to certain sites, and how to tell spam from regular e-mail, and why we should never open certain attachments and stuff," he tells me. "And there are posters up in all the hallways and in classrooms."
But Liam is not sure how much kids listen.
"Some kids just run right through it. They don't care what their teachers say. They just do what they want to do."
Sometimes the media can help teachers reinforce this message. When I asked a group of Liam's friends about why they thought they had to be careful on the Internet, several said they had heard about the young girl who committed suicide when the mother of a former friend used a phony Facebook identity to attack her. My 10-year-old daughter's best friend said it was "scary" to think that an adult would do that to a kid.
But kids can still be pretty naive about using the Internet. When all their friends are using Facebook and MySpace, the peer pressure is to join and share, not to be cautious and prudent. Teaching Internet safety in schools can be one way to reinforce the message "don't talk to strangers online."
And as the parent of a student in Virginia, I have to say that it seems the application of the program seems rather patchy. The first school the kids attended in September was in a suburban area of northern Virginia. It offered a variety of programs and material for parents about Internet safety. But we moved to a much more rural area in January, and the new school, while being very good educationally, does not seem to have the same priority about the issue. (Could the Internet be seen as more of a danger in an urban setting, where parents are already hyper-alert on such issues as drugs, guns, and gangs? Not that they don't exist rurally – particularly drugs – but they don't seem as omnipresent.)
Look for more states to follow Virginia's lead on this issue. And if you're interested in following this story, and getting some good tips and materials on how to keep your kids safe online, check out WebWiseKids.org, a nonprofit group funded by corporations, including Verizon and Symantec, and the federal government to provide schools with no-cost Internet safety lessons.