Promoting Positive and Safe Digital Worlds: What Parents and Teachers Can Do to Empower Youth
In the foregoing chapters, we have shown that digital worlds offer youth opportunities for interaction and access to vast amounts of information and resources, but they also have their unsavory aspects, such as pornography, violent, and other inappropriate content that can be readily accessed, as well as potential for victimization at the hands of peers and adults. Understandably parents, practitioners, and policy makers are confused and uncertain as to how to respond to young people’s online forays. Our recommendation is to focus our efforts on protecting and empowering youth so they can use technology positively and safely, and in ways that will promote their well being. This chapter describes what we can do to ensure that youth have positive and safe experiences in digital worlds by safeguarding them from inappropriate and harmful online content (e.g., pornography and violence) and victimization by peers (e.g., cyber bullying) and adult predators (sexual solicitation). Doing so will require the concerted and proactive actions of government, industry, parents, and schools. For each stakeholder, we first present strategies to protect youth from inappropriate content and then present those that they can use to protect them from victimization. Although most of the information is in the context of the USA, where available, we provide information from other countries and contexts as well.
KeywordsInternet Service Provider Authoritative Parent Child Pornography Digital World Online Content
As the reader is by now undoubtedly aware digital worlds present a mass of contradictions for users. For youth, they offer opportunities for interaction and access to vast amounts of information and resources, but as we saw in the previous chapter, they also have their unsavory aspects, such as pornography, violent, and other inappropriate content that can be readily accessed, as well as potential for victimization at the hands of peers and adults. Understandably parents, practitioners, and policy makers are confused and uncertain as to how to respond to young people’s online forays. Consider David’s (the second author) experience while teaching a distance learning course on psychology and the Internet. Despite the course taking place in the relatively liberal Czech Republic, students, who were also parents of teens, had many concerns about inappropriate content (e.g., pornography, online violence) and interactions (e.g., cybersex, sexting) that their teens might encounter and more importantly, were unsure as to whether they should limit and restrict their child activities with digital media.
Such questions and worries may prompt parents to either prohibit their teen from using digital tools (e.g., the Internet) or applications (e.g., social networking sites, texting) or monitor their child too closely while using them (Tynes, 2007). Considering how deeply enmeshed technology is in young people’s lives and the fact that adolescences is a time when youth are developing autonomy and independence, these are neither practical or feasible, nor even wise options. Limiting and restricting adolescents’ access to digital media could well be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A smarter and more productive approach is to focus our efforts on protecting and empowering youth so they can use technology positively and safely, and in ways that will promote their well being.
This chapter describes what we can do to ensure that youth have positive and safe experiences in digital worlds by safeguarding them from inappropriate and harmful online content (e.g., pornography and violence) and victimization by peers (e.g., cyber bullying) and adult predators (sexual solicitation). Doing so will require the concerted and proactive actions of government, industry, parents, and schools (Chisholm, 2006; Dombrowski, Lemasney, Ahia, & Dickson, 2004; Oswell, 1999; Tynes, 2007), and in the next sections, we examine their roles in this endeavor. For each stakeholder, we first present strategies that they can adopt to protect youth from inappropriate content and then present those that they can use to protect from victimization; since we can use many of the same strategies against both threats, the latter category only includes those measures that are unique to online victimization. Much of our discussion is also in the context of the USA, but where available, we provide information from other countries and contexts as well.
The Role of Government and Industry
Safeguarding Youth from Inappropriate Content
To understand the role of government and industry in safeguarding youth, we need to reconsider some aspects of adolescents’ digital worlds. As we noted in Chapter 1, the digital landscape is getting more complex and there is a blurring of the distinctions between hardware, content, and applications. Adolescents use a variety of hardware, including computers, cell phones, and other mobile hand-held devices, to access online content and interactions. With the emergence of the Web 2.0, user-generated content and opportunities for interaction are becoming a more central part of young people’s digital worlds. As a result, it is also getting more difficult to identify the face of industry, which now not only includes Internet service providers and commercial content providers, but also a host of online social forums or contexts and individual content creators themselves. For instance, mobile devices may allow access to content provided by cell phone companies or third parties, or even via the World Wide Web. Figuring out the relationship between government and industry is therefore not easy, and the changing nature of this relationship is reflected in the way the European Union has moved from a model of industry self-regulation in the 1990s to the current preference for co-regulation between government, industry, and user groups (EICN, 2005; Oswell, 1999).
Within the USA, the Federal Communication Commission does not regulate Internet content (Schwabach, 2005); the main challenge for government regulation is that most online content is protected as free speech by the First Amendment. In fact, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA)1, which was passed to protect minors from harmful online material, was struck down in July 2008 because of threats to the First Amendment (ACLU v. Mukasey, 2008). With regard to violent content, Weissblum has discussed the incitement of violence on the Internet in the context of the Columbine school shooting incident in Littleton, CO, in which the teenage perpetrators were reported to have obtained information about making bombs from online web sites (Weissblum, 2000). Even though most online content is treated as speech and is protected by the First Amendment, online speech is not protected if it creates a “clear and present danger” of imminent lawless action. Weissblum notes that “this action must be imminent, and there must be both intent to produce, and a likelihood of producing, imminent disorder.” However, the advocacy of violence alone is not regarded as incitement to imminent lawless action and consequently is protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, pornography per se is not considered illegal (although obscene material and child pornography are) and the courts have generally suggested that the use of filtering or blocking software are constitutionally more acceptable ways of regulating minors’ access to such material (Schwabach, 2005).
The legal arguments at the heart of these issues are beyond the scope of this book. Suffice to say that there are both legal as well as practical challenges to regulating violent, pornographic, and other online content that are potentially harmful to minors, and different governments have adopted different approaches. Given this reality, and the changing nature of technology itself, we submit that the onus of protecting youth from such content falls more squarely upon parents and others (e.g., teachers and physicians) who work with youth.
Safeguarding Youth from Online Victimization
Unlike aggressive and other negative online content that may be protected by free speech laws, aggressive online interactions (e.g., sexual solicitation, bullying, and harassment) are not. They have serious physical and psychological effects and in some cases, may even threaten the life and safety of youth. Consequently, at the legislative level, most countries have passed a variety of laws to protect children from such behaviors, with varying degrees of success. Within the USA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) protects young children’s privacy by requiring that commercial web site operators obtain parent consent prior to “collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children under 13” (Federal Trade Commision, 1999). Child exploitation statutes have criminalized online sexual coercion, exploitation, solicitation, and abuse and perpetrators may be prosecuted at the Federal or State levels for child abuse, exploitation, and sexual solicitation (Dombrowski et al., 2004). Furthermore, there are laws that mandate web site providers, Internet service providers, and other similar parties to report evidence of child pornography and sexual exploitation to the “Cyber Tip Line” (http://www.cybertipline.com) at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) (Dombrowski, Gischlar, & Durst, 2007; Dombrowski et al., 2004). Other countries such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, have also similarly passed laws that protect children from online grooming and pornography; most also have mechanisms to report online predatory behavior although the particular means may vary (e.g., web site vs. phone) (Dombrowski et al., 2007).
Legislation by itself cannot be effective and we need aggressive enforcement, including investigation and prosecution of online sexual predators. Within the USA, one such coordinated effort is the Project Safe Childhood (PSC) initiative, launched by the US Department of Justice in 2006 to “combat the proliferation of technology-facilitated sexual exploitation crimes against children.” It involves the coordinated action by several agencies and organizations including US Attorneys, the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Department’s Criminal Division, Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force, federal partners, including the FBI, US Postal Inspection Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Marshals Service as well as advocacy organizations (such as the NCMEC), and state and local law enforcement officials (Department of Justice, 2008). Similarly, in Europe, Insafe (http://www.saferinternet.org) seeks to promote the Internet safety of citizens, particularly youth and children, by creating a national level-based network of concerned actors including children, government, educators, parents, media, and industry. It provides information and resources for parents, teachers and others, promotes awareness campaigns, coordinated actions, as well as Internet help lines, and hotlines. “Safer Internet Programme,”2 also in Europe, seeks to empower and protect online youth by awareness-raising initiatives and by fighting illegal and harmful online content. One project of this program is “EU Kids Online,”3 which coordinates a public and searchable database of European research on children’s online activities4 that can be an important resource for parents, educators, and practitioners concerned about this issue. In 2010, project “EU Kids Online II” carried out a robust comparative research in 25 European countries focusing on online risks for children aged 9 to 16 years. The research report is available on the aforementioned project web page (from October 2010).
Legislating online bullying and victimization is much more challenging and less successful as well. The Megan Meier case described in Chapter 10 illustrates some of the difficulties involved. Prosecutors at the local level did not prosecute the case, as they could not find relevant statutes under which to pursue it. It was not until a year later that Federal authorities in Los Angeles (the location of the web site operator) pursued action against Lori Drew (the adult behind the incident). Even then, the prosecution was not for harassment per se, but for a violation of the Terms of Service agreement with MySpace as she had used a fictitious name to open an account. Federal prosecutors charged Ms. Drew with violating the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act showing how difficult it is to prosecute the intent to harm another. Some states such as Missouri, where this incident occurred, have since modified harassment laws to include Internet harassment. However, we think that these newer laws will be used only if the harassment leads to murder, suicide, or other equally dire consequences.
The Role of Parents
Safeguarding Youth from Inappropriate Content
Most youth first start using the Internet at home, which remains an important context where much of their online activity takes place. Parents therefore have a critical role to empower and safeguard their teen while they are online. Parents’ success in this regard will depend on both what they know about objectionable online content and their teens’ access to such material, and what they actually do to monitor and limit such access.
It turns out that parents are not very knowledgeable about the extent to which their adolescent accesses and views negative content. When teens and their parents were surveyed, it was found that parents underestimated their teens’ accidental and intentional exposure to content such as violent online games, sexually explicit sites, online interactions with strangers, and online gambling (Cho & Cheon, 2005). Such discrepancy between parents and teens’ reports about the latter’s offline and online behavior is not that uncommon; for instance, in Chapter 8, we noted that parents were in the dark as to whether or not their teens, who had visited an eating disorder clinic, had visited pro-anorexia sites.
Parental mediation strategies. Within the parenting literature, parents’ strategies and actions to help their children deal with unwanted media content is referred to as mediation techniques (Eastin, Greenberg, & Hofschire, 2006; Nathanson, 2001). Research on television and radio has led researchers to identify three mediation styles, factual mediation, evaluative mediation, and restrictive mediation. With regard to the Internet, a fourth kind, technological mediation, has been described (Eastin et al., 2006). We describe each of these mediation techniques next, with examples of how they can be used by parents to help their teens deal with unwanted online content.
Factual mediation techniques seek to provide users with facts about the content and production of media such as plot and character development, light and sound effects. With regard to Internet content, factual mediation does not transfer very readily, especially to aggressive material; it has also not been studied in the context of the Internet (Eastin et al., 2006). Specific examples of factual mediation with regard to online content come from the teaching of Internet literacy skills, such as the evaluation, credibility, and crediting of sources. These strategies are more critical to young people’s handling of information for schoolwork and health-related content, and were addressed in Chapters 6 and 8, respectively.
Jointly visiting websites and other online content with their children.
Having frank and open discussions with their teen about online content, and specifically addressing violent, hateful, and other more harmful kinds of content.
Evaluating with their teen online websites and other formats (e.g., music videos, YouTube videos) for violent images, hateful themes, and other negative content.
Placing the computer in a public space.
Having rules about the time spent online.
Having content restrictions, in other words, having rules about the kind of content that a teen can consume.
Technological mediation refers to parents’ use of technological strategies to mediate their children’s use of the Internet. Examples include software to track application usage and browser history, filtering software, installation of a firewall (Dombrowski et al., 2004; Eastin et al., 2006). Of particular note, parents can install filtering software on their children’s computers in order to limit exposure to violent and potentially disturbing content. Many different kinds of filters are available, such as those that allow access to selected web sites, or block access to sites with questionable content, or block sites that contain forbidden words (Ins@fe, 2009). Such electronic monitoring has its limits – filters are not foolproof and often will block access to legitimate sites. Moreover, even if parents use filters on home computers and laptops, their teens might still be able to access inappropriate content outside the home on a computer in a friend’s home or even in a public place such as a library.
Use and effectiveness of parental mediation strategies. Like so many other aspects of Internet use, we do not have a clear picture of the extent to which parents use the different techniques described above. The little we know is from parental self-report, and as we shall see below, they are often at odds with what teens say about their parents’ actions. In a US study, 33% of parents reported using filtering or blocking software, and 5% even reported discontinuing its use (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2005). Similarly, in the Czech Republic, 27% of parents reported using such software (World Internet Project, 2008, unpublished data). Parents were also more likely to use such software if they were very concerned about exposure to sexual material, suggesting that there may be much less use of blocking software to limit access to violent content. But it’s hard to know how much faith one can have in these numbers: Just as parents are often in the dark about their teens’ exposure to undesirable content, they also seem to overestimate the extent to which they actually monitor their Internet use. In the data from the Czech Republic described earlier, only 11% of 12- to 18-year olds reported that their parents installed some kind of filtering software on their computer. In another study, 40% of the parents and their teens disagreed as to whether they had rules about Internet use; in the majority of the cases, the parents reported having rules, whereas the teens reported that there were none (Wang et al., 2005). Worth noting also is that parents’ estimates of online dangers do not always match their actions in terms of setting limits or monitoring their teens (e.g., viewing their MySpace profile) (Rosen, Cheever, & Carrier, 2008).
Research on the effectiveness of parental mediation is both sparse and equivocal. One US study examined the effects of parental monitoring on adolescents’ exposure to pornography in a national sample of 1,500 youth between 10- and 17 years of age (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2007). Two types of prevention efforts were associated with lowered risks of unwanted exposure to online pornography and we describe them next. The first included the use of filtering, blocking, or monitoring software, which had a “modest protective effect” on both accidental as well as intentional exposure to pornographic material. Not all technological solutions were equally effective and the use of pop-up advertisement blockers and e-mail spam filters had no effect on exposure to online pornography. In fact, the study’s authors warn that “filtering and blocking software alone cannot be relied on for a high level of protection against unwanted exposure and other approaches are needed” (p. 254). The second effort, which was associated with reducing unwanted exposure to pornography, entailed parents attending a law enforcement presentation about Internet safety. Such programs provide specific information about how pornography is disseminated online, how it can be accessed on a computer, and how to avoid it. They are more effective for reducing unwanted exposure, compared to intentional exposure. A surprising result of this study was that adolescents, who talked to their parents or other adults about online pornography, actually had higher odds of exposure to unwanted pornography. To account for this finding, the authors speculate that the parent–adolescent conversations may have occurred after the unwanted exposure rather than before. The fact that there was no association between intentional exposure to pornography and parent–teen conversations on this issue suggests that this may indeed be the case. In contrast, a Dutch study found no association between parental monitoring and adolescents’ exposure to online pornography (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006). However, only one item (“My parents know when I am surfing the Internet”) was used to assess the extent of parental mediation and this may be why no relation was found between parental actions and adolescents’ exposure to online content.
Factors affecting parental mediation of online content. Parental and child demographics, parenting style, and family cohesion variables all influence the extent and particular kind of mediation techniques that parents use to monitor their teen’s Internet use. As one would expect, parents of younger teens report higher levels of monitoring compared to parents of older teens (Eastin et al., 2006; Wang et al., 2005). In addition, parents with less education are more likely to use monitoring software than parents with higher education because more highly educated parents might have greater experience with computers and the Internet and so may have more confidence in their ability to monitor their teens’ Internet use without using monitoring software (Wang et al., 2005).
Not surprisingly, parental mediation and monitoring is related to parenting style. Authoritative parents5 are more likely to set limits (e.g., time limits and not allowing computers in the bedroom) and to use both evaluative and restrictive mediation techniques compared to authoritarian and neglectful parents (Eastin et al., 2006; Rosen et al., 2008). Ironically, technological blocking was generally the least-used technique compared to time restrictions, content restrictions, and co-viewing. It was also used most often by authoritative parents, and less so by authoritarian and neglectful ones (Eastin et al., 2006). Lastly, family variables may also be related to parents’ mediation of their teen’s exposure to online content. One study found that shared web activities between parent and teen, and parents’ perceived family cohesion enhanced parental perceived control over Internet use, which in turn led to decreased exposure of Internet content (Cho & Cheon, 2005). Family cohesiveness may generally be related to teens’ online activities – Mesch (2008) found that among Israeli adolescents, those who reported higher commitment to their families were also less likely to consume online pornography and be involved in aggressive behavior.
The family’s role in promoting positive and healthy online experiences for adolescents cannot be overstated. Indeed, in her testimony to the Congressional Committee on Government Reform (Greenfield, 2004), Greenfield suggested that a warm parent–child relationship and communication may be the most important non-technical means that parents can use to help youth face a sexualized media environment.
Safeguarding Youth from Online Victimization
Parents should have conversations with their teens about their online activities and interaction partners. Although most teens appear to interact with people from their offline lives (see Chapter 5), this is not true for everyone. Therefore, it is important for parents to talk to their child about the dangers of making friends with people they have never met offline, particularly if they are adults. Dombrowski and colleagues also recommend that parents talk to their teens about the dangers of sexual predators and do so at a developmentally appropriate level. More generally, parents should discuss the dangers of meeting face to face with people, only known online. They should discuss common precautions when a teen meets with such online friends, particularly peers; examples include taking a friend along, or meeting in a public space. Parents should also discuss the problem of cyber bullying and encourage their child to talk to them or to a trusted adult at school if they are the victims of online bullying.
Related to the above, parents should have constructive conversations with teens about what they can do to safeguard their privacy online (see Chapter 6 for more on teens’ understanding of privacy). For instance, they should discuss with them that information posted on online forums may be publicly available, others may intercept information sent over the Internet, and that one should not disclose personal information about oneself (e.g., age, location, etc) over the Internet. Given the requirements of COPPA and concerns about online privacy in general, most online forums such as blogs and social networking sites allow users to choose from a variety of privacy settings. For instance, Facebook users can chose profile settings so that limited profile information (e.g., details about the user) is revealed in a search; it allows users to provide restricted access to their profiles, so their Facebook friends are not able to access all parts of their profile. Parents should learn about these options and educate and encourage their teen to use these settings (Tynes, 2007).
Approving screen names: Parents and guardians should explain to teens that screen names are the equivalent of their online faces. They should know and approve of their screen names and should dissuade teens from using sexually suggestive ones, as sexual predators may be more likely to target teens with sexually provocative screen names (Dombrowski et al., 2007).
Parents should also help their teens to develop what Tynes calls an exit strategy (Tynes, 2007). They should help youth to recognize the behavior of predators and should talk to them about strategies they can adopt when they feel threatened by an online conversation/interaction partner; for instance, they should end the interaction immediately and block the person as well. These strategies are also useful when a peer is harassing a teen. If the individual continues to contact the youth or the threatening behavior continues, they should advise the teen to report it to parents and appropriate authorities. In the case of bullying and harassment, parents should advise teens to complain to the Internet Service Provider of the harasser. Teens should be advised that if they are sexually solicited online by an adult or someone they think is an adult, they should report it immediately to the “CyberTipline” mentioned earlier (Tynes, 2007).
Installing a firewall and anti-virus or anti-Trojan software to prevent unauthorized access into computer systems and to prevent access to private information.
Installation of a key logger or a chat logger to monitor communication with third parties: These programs record all key strokes typed on a computer, or record plain-text communication via a chat client.
Encryption for chat clients (e.g., AOL’s Instant Messenger) that protects youth from predators who may use Ethernet sniffers to spy on their online communication.
Privacy filtration to block the transmission of personal information over the Internet; parents can use such programs to specify the kinds of information that can or cannot be transmitted over the computer.
No doubt, more such tools will be developed to counteract the aggressive actions of sexual predators. However, we should keep in mind that technological measures have their limitations: they require parents to be technologically proficient, they do not protect youth when they access computers outside the home, and peers and predators with technological skills might find ways to counteract them. Most importantly, they do raise concerns of privacy and trust, at the very time that adolescents desire more autonomy and their relationships with their parents may be changing.
The Role of Schools
Safeguarding Youth from Inappropriate Content
With regard to protecting youth from inappropriate content online, many states in the USA have laws mandating that schools prevent minors from gaining access to sexually explicit, obscene, and harmful material. In addition, the US Congress has enacted The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which imposes similar requirements when schools receive federal funding for technology and Internet access (FCC, 2009). Generally, schools use filtering and blocking software to comply with these laws. It should be noted that only obscene content, child pornography, and content “harmful to minors” is explicitly addressed by the law, but most school districts use electronic filters to also block sites that contain violence, as well as sites that provide access to social networking sites, games, shopping, and gambling.
Safeguarding Youth from Online Victimization
Schools and educators can help protect youth from harassing and threatening interactions online by adopting the evaluative and restrictive mediation strategies described earlier. However, cyber bullying presents special challenges for schools – it may occur when a youth is on school premises, but can also happen when the youth is at home and at virtually any time of the day, making it difficult for schools to regulate it. Moreover, since offline and online bullying are related, cyber bullying that occurs outside of school may later on be related to incidents at school. Legally it is difficult for schools to control behavior that occurs outside of school and as such there is little consensus on how they should respond. Developing effective policy to combat cyber bullying will necessarily require the collaboration of all important parties – policy makers (e.g., school board), school officials, parents, and youth (Brown, Jackson, & Cassidy, 2006).
Thus far, we have discussed the different strategies that government, law enforcement, parents, and schools can adopt to help make youth have positive and safe online experiences. Parents have an especially important role to play in safeguarding youth and we need more research to ascertain the extent to which they consistently adopt different mediation techniques, their effectiveness, and the factors that mediate their efficacy. There is some evidence that when, parents, and teachers take a more proactive role, there are immediate benefits with regard to protecting youth from harmful interactions. In one study of adolescent girls, 70% reported that their parents had discussed online safety with them and 35% reported that their teachers had done this as well; furthermore, it appeared that direct supervision, periodic monitoring, and ongoing discussion with adults was associated with less risky behaviors online, such as disclosing personal information, and offline meetings (Berson, Berson, & Ferron, 2002). Importantly, teen girls who discussed online safety with their teachers and parents were less likely to report having agreed to meet with a stranger they had met online. Teacher discussions were especially important for teens who did not have such a discussion with their parents.
The parental role in cyber bullying may be hampered because they are generally unaware of cyber bullying as many youth do not tell their parents about their bullying behavior or when they are bullied (Dehue, Bolman, & Vollink, 2008; Juvonen & Gross, 2008). In Juvonen and Gross’s study, 90% of participants reported not telling their parents when they were bullied mainly because they were afraid that they would get into trouble with their parents and might have their Internet use restricted. Similarly, when it comes to using technological strategies, a quarter of the youth who had been bullied online had never blocked the bullies’ screen name (Juvonen & Gross, 2008). While not conclusive, these findings do suggest that even the most sophisticated strategies and tools will not work unless parents, teachers, and other health professionals discuss online safety with teens, teach them about using technological strategies to protect themselves, and reiterate that informing adults about unpleasant experiences or interactions will not lead to repercussions.
Finally yet importantly, parents’ decision to monitor their teen’s online activities and exposure is itself not an easy one. Parents have to grapple with the competing demands of giving their teens freedom, respecting their online privacy, and ensuring their online safety. Ultimately, the decision to monitor and to limit teens’ online activities and the content they accesses is an individual one, and depends on cultural norms as well as family beliefs and parenting practices. Not only are there enormous differences in attitudes about sexuality and permissiveness between individuals in different countries, there are also differences between parents and families within a particular country. There are also individual differences among adolescents in the amount of freedom they can handle and how much they have to be monitored. Consequently, there is no single, correct way of handling adolescents’ exposure to inappropriate online content and interactions. Parents and families will have to make individual decisions concerning whether and how much to monitor their teens’ online activities.
The COPA should not be confused with the COPPA, which is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 and regulates the collection of personal information (such as name, address) from minor children younger than 13 years of age.
See Chapter 6 for a brief description of authoritative parents.
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