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WiredKids:
From Safety and Privacy to Literacy and Empowerment
by Art Wolinsky
Southern Regional HS • Manahawkin, New Jersey
MultiMedia Schools • September 2000

Very simply, it is our belief that the greatest danger to children in connection with the Internet is to be denied access to this extraordinary resource.
[Editor’s Note: Filtering, censorship, privacy. These hot-button issues landed on our doorstep, from the minute the Internet arrived at our schools. Common sense dictates that these vital matters must be resolved within families and communities. However, this has not discouraged legislation that keeps returning responsibility to schools. The silver lining to this cloudy situation is the opportunity it presents to bridge the gap between home and school. Beyond safety and privacy, WiredKids is about developing literacy and parental empowerment and provides the common ground from which we can build parental involvement and sustainable community support. Visit the WiredKids Web site [www.wiredkids.org] for the latest information to support your work in schools and bridge-building with your community.]

Do you remember the pivotal moment in TV history when Soupy Sales told kids all across the country to go to their parent’s pocketbooks and send him the green stuff? Soupy said it and the kids did it. Young children are trusting. They listen to adults (except for their parents).

When they get a little older they may not listen quite as well. They begin to think for themselves. They may even partake in some dangerous pastimes like railroad car hopping or grabbing the tailgate of a pickup truck with their feet firmly planted on their skateboard.

Why do kids do these things? I guess it is part of being a kid. Do they know better? Sure, they do, but in their minds they are invincible. They don’t think anything can happen to them.
 

What about your kids?
Although we don’t have a poll on wild skateboarding, I have taken one that tells us what your kids are doing online. I was surprised at the results, and I bet you will be too.

How well do you know your children? Do they talk to strangers? Do they accept gifts from strangers? Do they meet strangers at the mall? How do they define a stranger? Are they all hairy and ill-kept, wearing a raincoat, and hanging out in schoolyards? Better yet, how do they define a friend, someone they can trust with their safety?

I asked 376 middle school students about their online Internet habits. Some of the answers will surprise you. For instance, I asked, “Have you ever met a stranger online and then later met them in person?” How would your child answer that question? Would your child have been one of the 54 who said they had? Would they have been one of the 29 who said they were planning to?

How does that behavior compare to hitching rides on the back of trucks or jumping on moving trains? Is it more dangerous? Is it less dangerous? Maybe you should ask that of the FBI, which opened 1,500 cases of Internet predators against children last year. (Roughly the same number were opened by state and local law enforcement agencies, for a total estimated to exceed 3,000 cases opened in 1999.)

If think your child wouldn’t do that, or if you think there must be something wrong with the survey, consider this. Parry Aftab, a noted cyber-attorney, author of The Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace (McGraw-Hill 2000) and the executive director of Cyberangels.org [http://www.cyberangels.org], the world’s largest online safety organization, asked the same question in an online survey she conducted at seventeen.com (Seventeen magazine’s Web site) to 10,800 teenage girls. The same percentage of teen girls said they would meet Internet strangers offline as did in our local survey. And Parry tells us that all of her offline surveys, around the world, result in the same conclusion. Kids are meeting strangers offline. And they do it far more often than any of us would have expected.

Parry knows that young children are trusting and teens are often adventurous and rebellious. Just as teens in the street sometimes engage in activities that they would avoid if they are supervised and had an understanding of the ramifications of their actions, they engage in dangerous online activities too.

In an effort to help children use the Internet safely and productively, Parry has created WiredKids [http://www.wiredkids.org]. WiredKids was born shortly after she was appointed the North American president of the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, Cultural Exchange Organization) Innocence in Danger child safety program. It’s an umbrella organization that includes any and everyone interested in the Internet and children, from equitable access for poor, minority, and specially abled children, to giving teachers the help they need to develop teaching plans and learning resources using the Internet, to all aspects of safety and privacy.

Just about a year ago Parry asked if I would volunteer to help with the WiredKids. She wanted to get the message across about the benefits of Internet and to put the dangers in proper perspective [see the “Placing the Risks in Perspective” sidebar]. She said the magic words, “It won’t take much time.” They must have been magic, because I actually believed her. Of course the broken promise is as much my own doing as it is Parry’s. The fact of the matter is that WiredKids is forming on a solid foundation of volunteerism and a simple philosophy. Very simply, it is our belief that the greatest danger to children in connection with the Internet is to be denied access to this extraordinary resource.

WiredKids is an organization devoted to helping to empower kids to use the Internet safely and in age-appropriate ways. The method of action can be summed up in three words: educate, communicate, and supervise.

WiredKids offers information in links to sites about safe use of the Internet and provides resources to parents, teachers, librarians, law enforcement, and community member to help them understand the value of Internet and its potential hazards. It encourages parents and teachers to talk to the children and to understand and guide them in their use of this vast resource.

Placing the Risks in Perspective

Many people are worried about children accessing pornography. Surveys and studies show that the perception of the problem far outreaches the reality. The real danger lies not in pornography, but in people.

Pedophiles and predators are the real danger, but that must be put in perspective as well. Predators are a very tiny minority of the people on the Internet. Isolating children from people is not an answer. In fact, it is a huge disservice to children, because the real power of the Internet lies in people. The key is to teach children how to deal with people of all types.

In my own case, it would take a book to detail how people online have affected my life and contributed to my success. I met Parry online and as a result am involved with WiredKids and UNESCO. I have written four books with the help of people I met online. I’ve been invited to speak at conferences and do workshops because of my online activities. The list goes on and on. For me, the Internet has shattered the Peter Principle. Every time I reach a level at which I begin to struggle, I meet people online who provide me with the resources and the help to move to the next level.

What children can accomplish when they work online is no less impressive. Partnering with teachers, three students undertook a successful quest to identify and contact 10 Japanese “children” from a 50-year-old photo and a few facts [see http://www.srsd.org/etajima/]. They had to contact and deal with people all over the globe. The inter- and intrapersonal and problem-solving skills they acquired equipped them well for their life in the 21st century.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other examples of kids doing wonderful things when contacting strangers on the Internet. It is not our job to try to protect them by isolating them. It is our job to teach them how to deal with information and with people. Armed with the right information, they can protect themselves and forge a bright future.


Good COPPA? Bad COPPA?
Most recently, Parry and WiredKids have focused on working with the FTC in spreading the word about COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act. Under the provisions of COPPA, as of April 21, all commercial Web sites must get prior parental consent before children 12 and under are permitted to share any personal information about themselves, or are permitted to use any interactive communication technologies where they would be able to share personal information with others. This includes chatrooms, e-mail, instant messaging, personal profiles, personal Web sites, registration forms, and mailing lists. (E-mail consent sent by the parent is not, under most circumstances, sufficient as parental permission.)

The impact on commercial Web sites is immense. The perception of additional work necessary to police the access by children has caused some sites to close down many community features and others to shut down entirely.

COPPA has far-reaching implications for parents and schools as well. Though nonprofit and school Web sites are exempt from the COPPA provisions, and can allow access to their own sites if they allow children to use a third-party commercial site in an interactive manner, or use a site that collects personal information from children, prior parental permission must be obtained by the school. The sites are permitted to rely on the school’s statement that parental consent for this site has been received. But, to avoid liability, a school better make sure it actually has parental consent before it represents this to the Web site.

Schools need to be alert to the fact that students may be taken to non-compliant Web sites or even to compliant sites for which parents have not given their expressed consent. Acceptable use policy provisions need to be amended to include applicable COPPA consents and students and parents need to be educated about these policies.

[Editor’s note: The FTC is developing guidelines for schools on COPPA compliance, which will be posted at www.wiredkids.org, the WiredKids site, by press time. The guidelines may change a few of the current rules as far as school and kids’ interactivities with third-party sites are concerned.]

Part of the nightmare parents face is having to give “verifiable consent” as defined in the law. They may be asked to write offline letters, have to send endless faxes, or make loads of phone calls to 800 numbers set up by some Web sites to verify parental permission. It may mean a lot of time spent reviewing the content of Web sites to determine if permission should be granted.

Up to now there has been no simple solution to these problems, but as of this writing WiredKids has been working on getting a solution in place. The solution is in the form of something that they call the Central Site Registry (CSR). Web sites that are COPPA-compliant can register with CSR. Trained volunteers will evaluate the site for compliance and if the site meets the requirements, it will be added to the registry.

The plan calls for parents to come to the CSR, view a list of COPPA-compliant Web sites and through a small credit-card donation, they can grant permission to allow their children to visit one, a few, many, or all of the sites on the list. Provisions are also being made for free offline consents, such as via fax, offline letters, and even a proposed toll-free number, which would allow parents to use this service without having to make a donation. But, CSR would only need one global letter, or fax, not hundreds. One consent, under the registry, is enough for all member sites.

Web sites registering with the CSR no longer have to undertake the paperwork or provide the expensive staffing necessary to monitor and maintain their access lists. Parents have one place through which they may grant access to multiple Web sites. The savings of money and effort are not insignificant. Most sites report a cost of compliance ranging for $60,000 to $100,000 per year.

Aside from COPPA, WiredKids is seeking to reach out through a wide range of resources to help inform and advise the public about Internet use. Key individuals in organizations such as the National Education Association, National School Boards, TECH CORPS, the Benton Foundation, and many others have provided input and guidance during the early stages.

Other sources are providing content and support. The Baltimore County Public Schools library system, under the guidance of Della Curtis (with a little help from Parry), has created a powerful outreach program, Parent Internet Education (P.I.E). No other school system in the country has undertaken to offer, system-wide, as many Internet learning experiences to as many of its parents.

Other libraries are providing resources and material to develop critical information-literacy skills throughout the community, starting with students and not ending with anyone. The American Library Association is also a member.

As of this writing, an alliance has been formed with the 11th District Georgia PTA, which, under the guidance of Eileen Faucette, runs PTA Live Online!, a regional effort to promote family involvement in education and age-appropriate use of the Internet. The goal of PTA Live Online! is to reach beyond its region and to establish community-based action groups to promote effective use of the Internet for parents and students.

Commercial organizations are partnering and providing support at well. WiredKids assisted the FTC in the creation of an online pamphlet. Chancery Software sponsored the publishing and dissemination of it, along with thousands of book covers and bookmarks containing safety tips for children. Microsoft, AOL, Disney, Lycos, Surfmonkey, PBS, Net Nanny, Children’s Television Workshop, Homeroomcentral.com, McGraw-Hill, and The Internet Society are among the key 100 members already committed to the project.

Law enforcement and government groups are on board, too. The FTC, FBI, DOJ, U.S. Customs, Attorney General of New York, NJ State PBA and State Police, UNESCO, and others are helping with the public policy, safety, and security issues.

But WiredKids isn’t just the big guys. In the Schools section that I run, I want to feature outstanding work of teachers and students. If you are doing good things with kids or know of someone who is, our Bragging Rights section is for you. If you are a teacher who has created a great Web site or lesson, let me know about it. You might be one of our featured sites. It’s a place built by us, for us. And it belongs to all of us, as a central resource. It means we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel when it comes to kids and technology.

These are just a few of the efforts undertaken. Dozens of other organizations have endorsed the efforts and offered assistance in helping WiredKids develop. You can, too. Just contact us.

But before I leave I want share a few more statistics from my survey of middle school children:

When asked if they had ever visited a site their parents wouldn’t want them to visit, 55 percent of the boys and 45 percent of the girls responded, yes.

When asked where they were when they accessed the site, 56 percent said home, 36 percent said at a friend’s house, 3 percent said school, and 5 percent said other places.

So to librarians and teachers I say, “Keep on promoting information literacy and visit WiredKids to find out how you can help reach out to parents.”

To parents I say, “It’s any o’clock, and even if they are snug in their rooms, with the doors locked and the burglar alarm set, do you know where they are in cyberspace and who they are with?”
 
 

Communications to the author may be addressed to Art Wolinsky, Southern Regional HS, 600 N. Main St., Manahawkin, NJ 08050; voice: 609/597-9481, ext. 337, fax: 609/978-5357; e-mail: awolinsky@adelphia.net.


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