A Child-Safe Internet
Multifaceted Approach Needed to
Protect Kids Online
Many children today have never known a world without personal computers and the Internet. In fact, nearly 60 percent of school-age children have access to the Internet at home and at school, according to a 2000 survey by the Census Bureau.
While many parents may lack the technological sophistication of their children, they can't ignore the added responsibility posed by Internet access. Because the Web doesn't distinguish between adults and children, it is difficult to protect children from inappropriate materials on this global, interactive, and anonymous medium.
Although the percentage of adult-oriented, sexually explicit material on the Web is quite small, making up less than 2 percent of all online content, it generates about $1 billion a year in revenue from paying customers. Its high profile and easy accessibility pose a real challenge for parents, policy-makers, and educators.
Many workplaces, schools, and libraries use filters and monitoring to block access and inadvertent exposure to pornography, and laws and regulation work to reduce the extent of its availabil-ity. But there is no single approach -- technical, legal, economic, or educational -- sufficient to protect children from pornography, says a new report from the National Research Council.
Controlling where children go, what they see, to whom they talk, and what they do when online requires a balanced mix of interventions. An essential element of protecting kids from such material on the Internet is the promotion of social and education strategies that teach children to make wise choices online, the report says.
Parents can start by gaining a basic understanding of what is on the Internet and initiating sometimes-uncomfortable conversations with their children. Home computers could be put in places that make solitary viewing impossible. Parents also can provide explicit instruction and guidance to their children about what they consider unacceptable activities.
Children should also be educated in Internet safety, much as they are educated about physical safety. This might include teaching them how sexual predators and hate group recruiters typically approach young people on the Internet, how to recognize jargon that signals inappropriate material, and when it is okay to provide personal information online.
Many children learn as much from peers and older siblings as they do from parents, teachers, and other adults. Peer mentoring, which has been shown to help some young people avoid crime and stay in school, could potentially help promote safe use of the Internet.
In addition to such hands-on human interventions, technology and public policy have important roles to play as well. Technology-based tools provide parents and other responsible adults with added options to protect children and can be highly effective. But these technologies are inherently imperfect because they may also block informative and educational content and will always allow some inappropriate things to leak through. Regardless of whether technology is used, a child must learn how to deal with the material they encounter.
Public policy can help make sexually explicit material less available to children. For example, providing incentives could lead the adult online entertainment industry to take actions to restrict children's access to content and, to some extent, reduce the number of providers of such material. Aggressive enforcement of existing anti-obscenity and child pornography laws can also make a difference. Public policy can also be used to promote media literacy and Internet safety education; to support development of quality, online educational ma-terial for children; and to encourage self-regulatory efforts by private parties.
The committee that wrote the report found that studies examining the impact on children from viewing sexually explicit material are limited and this area needs to be further researched. In addition, more technology-based tools should be developed. Current technologies are not well-matched to the growing diversity of channels through which children may be exposed to inappropriate content or experiences. --Jennifer Burris
Youth, Pornography, and the Internet. Committee to Study Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids From Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2002, 480 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08274-9; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $47.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Dick Thornburgh, former U.S. attorney general and counsel, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP, Washington, D.C. The study was sponsored by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., and the National Research Council.