• Special MMS Report •  
Child Safety and the Internet—From Fear to Fulfillment 
A report from the Safe Surfing 2001 convention in Singapore, February 2001
by Ferdi Serim
Editor MultiMedia Schools
MultiMedia Schools • May/June 2001

The issue of protecting children from the dangers of the Internet is a simple matter, but only for those at either extreme.

For those who fear victimization of vulnerable youth through exposure to degenerate materials and people who act out perverse fantasies, taking the most aggressive measures to limit access to such materials and people is a no-brainer. The Internet risks to children outweigh any potential reward and justify any means that can be developed.

For those who fear encroachments on individual liberty and believe that "information wants to be free," any measures that limit access to the global network, even those intended to protect children, are intolerable and represent the first steps to repression. The risks to freedom outweigh any potential dangers and justify any means that can be developed to thwart efforts to limit access.

However, for the rest of us who have seen the benefits to learning that can happen when children are guided in the appropriate use of the information, experiences, and interactions that the Internet provides, it is an issue of infinite complexity. Perhaps this is because the technology itself is value-neutral. It merely serves as a mirror for our minds and whatever our minds create, reflecting our hopes and fears, our values and vulnerabilities.

Paralyzed by the complexities, we and our leaders seem to seek an easy solution: neuter our computers! By turning off e-mail, chat, and JavaScript, and by turning over responsibility to others, trusting them to shield us from dangerous content and individuals, we turn away from the tough choices.

What's wrong with this picture, and how can we do better? Recently I went to Singapore seeking global answers to our national questions of Internet safety. The ideas and solutions I report on here are all derived from presentations and speeches I heard at Singapore's Safe Surfing 2001 convention, held there in February. For more information on the convention, visit http://www.pagi.org.sg.


We are moving from a time of fear to fulfillment. In a remarkable turn of events, the shock of real-life implications for online interactions between children and the "Double U's of the Internet" (undesirable content and unscrupulous individuals) has catalyzed collaboration between people who should have been talking all along: parents, schools, and content providers.

Given the futility of reliance upon purely technological solutions, there's an emerging consensus that the best way to ensure the safety of children on the Internet is to educate, both in the behaviors that keep people safe and in the best uses of compelling content that keeps people engaged.

Exclusively national efforts to regulate a global environment can't possibly succeed. While parental concern is growing around the world over the access to pornographic materials on the Internet, only adding to the already significant challenges of parenting, the most recent statistics suggest that only 1.5 percent of Internet pages contain such content. It might be comforting to think that filtering can protect impressionable young eyes, but it is far easier to imagine this protection than to achieve it.

Instead of "making the Internet safe for children," people are now working together "making children safe for the Internet." In doing so, they are creating powerful teams whose benefits to education go far beyond calming fears, instead providing a foundation for fulfillment of the promise the Internet brings to learning. Rather than "filtering out the bad," there is momentum to "gather the good" by developing voluntary rating systems that rely on strategies to document and authenticate useful, appropriate content for learners.

At Singapore's Safe Surfing 2001 convention, I learned of some encouraging developments that demonstrated this trend. The event was convened by this small nation to help itself and the rest of the world's nations address the issue of Internet safety. As I wrote in my introduction, the ideas expressed and approaches suggested are globally applicable.

The Conundrum for Singapore
Viewing Singapore from outside, our media provides a picture of life there that is dispelled upon arrival. Rather than the sheltered, conformist stereotype perpetuated by stories of controlled media and canings; I perceived a progressive, multicultural society determined to learn from the mistakes of others. The power of media is well understood, as is the power of values. Singaporeans express these values as unifying aspects of their culture and have traditionally taken a tough stance against violence and sexually explicit media, as they believe the detrimental societal effects of such content, especially on the young, outweigh the worth in terms of personal choices. The Internet has provided a moment where such restrictions are no longer enforceable and engendered a debate in this island nation for which every Singaporean has a ready opinion. (For more on leading Singaporeans' views on this situation, see "Singaporean Perspective" below.)

Presentations, Ideas, and Insights
The international gathering of experts on Internet safety issues assembled at Safe Surfing 2001 provided some fascinating insights and ideas for Singaporeans—and for the rest of us. Here are some of the best of them.

Parry Aftab, WiredKids

Parry Aftab, director of CyberAngels and WiredKids [http://www.wiredkids.org], works with 9,000 volunteers in 74 countries. Together, these individuals comprise the largest non-governmental agency on the planet, all working to make children safe for the Internet. [See the September 2000 issue of MMS, page 16, or online at http://www.infotoday.com/MMSchools/sep00/wolinsky.htm, for a feature on WiredKids.]

WiredKids provides free materials to help parents and teachers learn about positive uses of the Internet and practical strategies for keeping kids safe, while also working with government agencies around the world to reduce the digital divide.

In speaking to the delegates, Aftab made the following points regarding Internet safety:

Jan D'Arcy, Media Awareness Network

Jan D'Arcy co-directs Canada's Media Awareness Network Web Awareness Project [http://www.webawareness.org], which grew out of the Canada Film Board. Extending media literacy to the Internet is not a stretch, as "the problems are not limited to the Internet, but are found in all media" according to D'Arcy. The solution to the problems lies in education. Taking an integrated approach has resulted in innovative initiatives, which include large-scale surveys, development of downloadable games, online workshops, and a project to provide "merit badges" in media literacy for Girl Scouts that will be vetted in public libraries throughout Canada. D'Arcy noted, "We have more public libraries than we have McDonald's in Canada."

Some results of the Web Awareness Project surveys are surprising, and all have insights for classroom practice. While it is not surprising that parents have concerns about what their children will encounter on the Internet, their reaction to questions about supervision is surprising. Most parents said they do supervise their children. But further questions show that parents don't have any idea what the children are doing online, and that they doubt that their children would know how to respond if they found themselves in uncomfortable situations. As it turns out, parents' definition of "supervision" only encompasses when and how long their children can be online, determined by the need to keep the phone line free. Parents want the phone line open after school, when their children are home alone and parents are still at work. They also want access to the phone in the evening, either for their own use or to go online themselves. Perhaps in this case, "managing" is a more descriptive term than "supervision."

The children provide some surprises as well. Based on age, children have very different ideas and behaviors regarding the Internet. Those most at risk admit that they frequently lie about their age, identity, habits, and hobbies as a way of "trying on" different identities or engaging in risky behavior. One girl reported, "I only lie about myself until I feel I can trust the people I'm online with." This period of trust development can range from 15 minutes to 2 weeks, a finding that ought to chill the blood of any parent.

Stephan Balkam, ICRA

Stephan Balkam spoke to the convention delegates about the International Content Rating Association (ICRA) [http://www.icra.org], an independent, not-for-profit, international organization "intent on striking a balance—protecting our children and protecting free speech," according to Balkam. Rather than filtering out the bad, ICRA is promoting a program for Web content providers to self-assess their materials. This is done by filling out a profile online, which takes only 5 to 10 minutes. The ICRA Web site then sends back code that meets the PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) standard, yielding metatag data that can be inserted into the Web page.

This enables parents to turn on and make use of the parental control preferences that are now built in to Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Similar preferences can be adapted as filtering templates for use by other programs or settings files. A filtering template is "a set of pre-configured options that reduces the need for user decision points and reflects the values of the template provider—a quick and easy route to filtering based on the trust and values of the template provider," noted Balkam in his presentation. Be sure to rate the pages you, your school, and your students create!

Balkam pointed out that in a globally networked world, uncoordinated regulation and legislation at the national level can never work, as those who profit from undesirable content need only host their materials in a nation with less restrictive policies. Critics of filtering, particularly in the U.S., have long pointed out that this fact transforms the efforts of Congress to control content into grandstanding, since such legislation can't possibly work.

David Smith, SurfMonkey

One of the most exciting sessions was by David Smith, founder of SurfMonkey [http://kids.surfmonkey.com/company/]. Aided by 34 computer scientists working in Silicon Valley, Smith's team has a mission to "open the Internet capabilities to kids in a safe way." Rather than being turned off, communication and collaboration tools are integrated into a unique browser that installs a firewall on the home or school computer and allows parents to specify preferences about who, when, and what each of their children has access to. Since this material is based on a server and the child accesses the account via password, these preferences follow the child to any computer, and to any browser on that computer.

However, the restrictive elements of SurfMonkey are subordinated to the goal of providing content that is fun, engaging, and appropriately challenging. As Jeffery Cole of UCLA, another presenter at the convention, pointed out, children want experiences that are repeatable, reliable, rewarding, and fun.

Jane Emerson, Lycos Zone

Jane Emerson traced the development of Lycos Zone [http://www.lycoszone.com], an area designed for kids age 3 to 12, back to the realization that the Lycos Search engine could result in kids accessing undesirable materials. The Lycos Zone received a "Kids Best of the Web for Fun and Education" award from the CyberAngels and WiredKids organizations in March 2000. The initial effort to provide a "kid safe" search engine, called SafeGuard, allowed parents to set preferences that determined which materials kids could access. This approach has been superceded by the creation of a completely independent site that co-brands with reputable, high-quality content providers. Of particular interest to educators is the White House Anti-Drug Campaign and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) COPPA Public Awareness Campaign (which provides Lycos with safety advice video).

The service is free, and because of this, it has developed a relationship with the U.S. Department of Education in its efforts to reduce the digital divide. Lycos Zone was field-tested with 300 children, parents, and educators. Children even named the space and the characters who populate it, providing both themselves and Emerson with pride in the sense of ownership this has generated.

Recognizing that most children have limited time on school computers, the system has been designed to meet children's after-school needs, providing a free, safe place that can help them get their homework done. Patterns of actual use reflect the appropriateness of this design strategy. With over 90 million unique visitors and 7 billion unique page views per month, graphing their statistics alone could be a challenging math visualization activity for students.
Five years ago, reports about the preponderance of pornography on the Web generated sensationalistic headlines around the world. Although the proportion may have declined, and the efficiency of filters may have increased, the 1.5 percent of billions of Internet pages containing pornography is all too easy for young people to access.

Five years ago, rules covering what personal information about children ought to be posted on Web pages represented the bulk of advice, as well as which personal information ought never to be divulged. Today, 25 percent of children report having been contacted in inappropriate ways by questionable people in a variety of media, including chat rooms, e-mail, etc. In the U.K., 75 percent of children have mobile phones, a new symbol of status. The increasing ability of these devices to send and receive messages on the Internet has reduced the distance between "online" and "real life" while simultaneously increasing the difficulties of supervising communications between children and the "outside world."

The explosion of e-commerce and the gathering of marketing information directly targeted to youth has defied all attempts at regulation. Contests, prizes, and memberships for youth-oriented Web sites continually tempt youth to cross the line in terms of what information they ought to provide.

—Nigel Williams, Childnet International

Nigel Williams, Childnet International

Nigel Williams has developed a program to address the leading cause of concern among child safety activists: chats. Childnet International [http://www.childnet-int.org] launched its chatdanger.com Web site in October 2000 to alert parents to the perils that come when the potentials for trouble are not understood. Williams is a firm believer in the positive benefits of synchronous or "real-time" communications, but has learned from tragic experience that instant messaging or chats can migrate from moderated to private chat, to e-mail, and then phone contact, in an escalation of risk—all in a matter of moments.

The Childnet International site provides materials that every educator should become familiar with, in order to share this knowledge with every parent. Childnet, along with other agencies around the world, maintains that we can only help parents and children learn about the Internet if there is a partnership between industry, child welfare groups, and government.

David Kerr, Internet Watch Foundation

David Kerr reported that the Internet Watch Foundation [http://www.iwf.org.uk/] meets an important need for the child safety community: monitoring illegal content on the Internet. The existence of child pornography documents the perpetuation of child abuse through the creation of these materials. Children are, by definition, abused first in the very generation of such materials, and again in the perpetuation through replication of the materials as the images take on a life of their own on the Internet.

Using a series of hotlines, Web reporting, and networking activities, Internet Watch has successfully prosecuted child pornographers around the world. Note that Kerr requests that those who encounter offensive sites featuring adults not send warnings about them, despite the perceived danger to children that can result though exposure to them. His and the Internet Watch Foundation's concern is the particular subset of materials that are illegal anywhere in the world: pornographic materials that victimize children in their production.

H.K. Bhullar, a parent volunteer who runs Cybermumsndads for Singapore's Parent Advisory Group on Internet, summed it all up this way: "At the end of the day, it all comes down to parenting. Parents don't have time to monitor children's Internet use; they're caught in a time crunch. Rules alone don't work, so it has to be based upon relationships. Children have to trust that if they run into a bad site, or have a scary experience, they can talk about it with us, without fearing punishment. We have to make the Internet a family place."

As education and awareness result in the spread of this realization, we have an important opportunity and a vital role to play. Schools can't be any better than their communities demand that they be, for their quality is contingent upon the value that community places in their work. Now that fear has brought parents, content providers, and governments to the table, we can move beyond focusing on the bad and begin promoting the good, sharing powerful uses of the Internet and the place these skills take among the valued traditions that form good teaching and good learning. Singapore has led the way, perhaps being too modest in what it has achieved. It seeks advice and assistance from the rest of the world in realizing its highest vision for all its citizens. This is a global process that will bring local benefits to all who participate.

Singaporean Perspective

One of the big challenges for Singapore today is determining how to preserve the traditions that ground the country in its values, while simultaneously preparing its citizens to thrive in a global, information-based economy. Singapore has advanced to leadership positions in two areas: the ubiquity of broadband access, and the involvement of parents in guiding Singapore's response to the challenges such access brings. Here are some thoughts and perspectives from several Singaporean leaders and Safe Surfing 2001 convention organizers and participants regarding that challenge.

Mrs. Carmee Lim, PAGi

Mrs. Carmee Lin, chairman of the Parent Advisory Group for the Internet (PAGi), organized the Safe Surfing 2001 convention to convene leading experts from around the world on the diverse issues related to this topic. The mission of PAGi is "to empower parents so that they, in turn, can guide their children in the positive and safe uses of the Internet." There is no similarly organized group in the U.S. that works at such a high level with both government and content providers. Since its formation in November 1999, PAGi has reached 10,000 parents and has a membership base of 300.

PAGi works in three arenas: parental empowerment, identifying quality content, and international collaboration. The work of PAGi, both in organizing the Safe Surfing 2001 convention and in modeling best practices by its volunteers through panel discussions and audience participation at the convention, demonstrates the soundness of PAGi's vision. As Ms. Carmee noted, "Born in the Internet era, children quickly achieve a technical mastery of the Internet. Yet they are not likely to be sensitive to the dangers that lurk in cyberspace or how to manage these. Regulatory safeguards and the tools that technology offers taken in isolation of parental supervision can only offer partial protection. Parents are the key stakeholders in ensuring online safety. By taking greater responsibility in educating and guiding their children to use the Internet safely, parents complete the efforts of regulators and industry."

Mr. Lim Hock Chaun, Singapore Broadcasting Authority

As chief executive officer of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, Mr. Lim Hock Chaun works with all parties responsible for bringing information in, and out, of Singapore. The remarkable broadband access (many Singaporeans enjoy 2-megabit connections to their homes and workplaces) requires careful coordination among the nation's video and telecommunications companies as well as the Ministry of Education. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority has pulled together all the players at the policy, technical, and economic levels who must function as a team to deliver on the promise of the Internet for learning for all citizens. Mr. Lim noted, "The impact of the Internet on society has been nothing short of revolutionary. While fully cognizant of the tremendous potential and benefits of the Internet, I understand the increasing parental concern over online materials and activities that are harmful to children."

Bernard Tan, National Internet Advisory Committee

Welcoming the convention delegates and participants, Mr. Bernard Tan remarked, "The Internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities as well as challenges, some of which are of great concern to society and to parents in particular. The safety of their children on the Internet is a key concern of parents all over the world today." Reminding participants that both the Internet industry and parents need to play a greater role in protecting the young from the negative aspects of the Internet, he suggested that the industry should "take the lead in providing tools which enable parents and care-givers to positively manage their charges in the judicious use of the Internet."

Communications to the author may be addressed to Ferdi Serim , MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; phone: 905/415-5779; fax: 505/466-1901; e-mail ferdi@infotoday.com.

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