Should kids be taught 'Internet safety' in schools?

Can kids be taught to avoid dangers on the Internet while also taking full advantage of all of the good things available online? The State of Virginia, for one, thinks that classroom instruction will work.

In one of the first efforts of its kind in the US, Virginia has launched a program for "Internet safety" in schools.

"Today's student will be the first generation to use the Internet for their entire lives. This unprecedented access to resouces will enhance their learning, research, communications, explorations for new ideas, and expressions of creativity. [But] unfortunately, this remarkable resource has [also] become susceptible to abuse that often targets young people," according to the new program's implementation guidelines.

In a recent presentation at a suburban high school in Virginia, Gene Fishel, the state's assistant attorney general, demonstrated to parents the kinds of real life hazards kids can sometimes face on the Web.

Fishel showed a profile on a social networking site of a supposed 15-year-old girl who says that she's interested in meeting new people, and that she "likes boys." Yet the actual person behind the profile turns out to be a 31-year-old man who's now serving a 45-year prison term for sexually abusing 11 children he met on the Internet.

Virginia's new Internet safety program, which took effect this school year, is based on legislation first passed by the 2006 General Assembly and then signed by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

The new law adds a requirement that "acceptable Internet use" policies already developed by division school superintendents must now include a component on Internet safety for students, created "in alignment with guidelines" set by the state's superintendent of public instruction. Virginia's Department of Education then reviews the policies for compliance.

But Virginia's new "acceptable Internet use" policies are also required to keep up with current state and federal legislation, which might at any time add new stipulations mandating filtering technologies or banning certain kinds of Web sites from access in schools, for instance.

Will some kids try to circumvent filtering software, if it's dictated by the powers that be? Undoubtedly.

Will they laugh at "Internet safety" training, just as previous generations have always jeered at "health education"? Maybe. But now it's the law -- in Virginia classrooms, anyway. And even in Virginia, kids can still do whatever they want on their PCs at home without parental supervision.

Meanwhile, is it possible that this new program might actually help some kids steer clear of crime on the Internet?

On its Web site, Virginia's Office of Educational Technology offers free downloadable materials around the "Internet safety" program that include current guidelines and other resources, recent surveys about Internet safety, and a handbook on acceptable use.

Guidelines are provided in a number of areas, including: Legislation; Issues School Divisions Must Address; What Students Need to Know; and What Parents, Grandparents, and Caregivers Need to Know.

"The critical-thinking skills students learn in the classroom, library, and lab should be applied to Internet resources and Web searching," according to one of the guidelines in What Students Need to Know.

"Students need to know what to do and who to ask for help when they encounter a person or site on the Internet that is offensive or threatening to them," according to another guideline.

The Office of Educational Technology site also offers links to tools from NetSmartz and iSAFE Inc. that school administrators and teachers can use in putting the guidelines to work in the classroom.

The NetSmartz activities, for example, include "age appropriate" role plays, writing activities, and art projects that can be done by kids either individually or in groups.

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