Senate Hearing on Online Safety: More Emphasis on Educating Kids
Last week, the U.S. Senate held a committee hearing regarding children’s online safety and what steps need to be taken to prevent predatory behavior. Interestingly, much of the testimony emphasized the importance of online safety education over the use of filters.
The hearing, held by the Senate Commerce Committee on July 24th, began with an opening statement by committee chairperson Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in which he emphasized the need for a broad-based strategy that doesn’t rely solely on technology to protect kids:
While filtering and monitoring technologies help parents to screen out offensive content and to monitor their child’s online activities, the use of these technologies is far from universal and may not be fool-proof in keeping kids away from adult material.
In that context, we must evaluate our current efforts to combat child pornography and consider what further measures may be needed to stop the spread of such illegal material over high-speed broadband connections.
These are all difficult, yet critically important issues that parents and children face in an information age. If we search for a “silver bullet” solution, we will not find it.
Rather, our efforts must rely on a multi-layered strategy – one that teaches our children about safe and responsible online behavior; one that encourages industry action to develop tools that will aid parents in their efforts to restrict inappropriate material from their children’s access; and one that relies on swift and certain action by law enforcement officials in finding and punishing those who would use the Internet to harm children.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who has received a lot of attention in edtech circles as the senator who reintroduced the Deleting Online Predators Act earlier this year, used much of his statement to describe the changes being made to the bill, based on the feedback he and his staff have received from organizations and individuals around the country. Among the changes he noted:
- direct the Federal Communications Commission to identify industry practices that can limit the transmission of child pornography;
- require schools that receive E-Rate funds to provide age-appropriate education to their students regarding online behavior, social networking and cyberbullying;
- require the Federal Trade Commission to form a working group to identify blocking and filtering technologies in use and identify, what, if anything could be done to improve the process and better enable parents to proactively protect their children online; and
- add the selling or purchasing of children’s personal information in connection with a criminal offense in the criminal code as an indictable offense.
Among those testifying was Miss America 2007, Lauren Nelson. Nelson herself was subjected to inappropriate sexual advances from an adult when she was 13 years old, after she made the unfortunate decision of giving out her personal contact information to a stranger she met online. Since being crowned Miss America, she’s made online safety education one of her primary endeavors. Nelson testified:
I believe it is time to government to get involved and provide mandatory education for all of our children. We need to begin educating children as early as possible. We have all heard someone say “My kids/grandkids are quicker on the computer then I am.” It’s so true. Kids today are growing up using computers from a very early age and using them on a daily basis. We don’t allow our children to ride their bikes without first teaching them about proper safety and we shouldn’t let them use the computer and access the Internet without taking the same precautions.
I am here today to ask you to please implement mandatory education on Internet Safety for all of our children. There should be a mandatory class on internet safety that teaches children about how to use the internet, the potential dangers of the internet, and how to avoid these dangers.
As students become more proficient on the computer, they should be taught about the various networking sites and chat rooms, and the problems that can occur when they mis-use these sites.
Lastly, they should also learn about being responsible cyber citizens. The issue of cyber-bullying is a growing problem in our schools today and it must be addressed now. The bullies have moved from the playgrounds to the internet, and this new form of harassment cannot be tolerated.
The senators also invited Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, to offer a researcher’s perspective on online predation. When it comes to the public having an accurate understanding regarding the prevalence of online predators, Finkelhor said, “I’m afraid we may already be off to a poor start. The public impression of this crime is not in sync with the reality based on what we now know from the research.”
First, we have found that the predominant online sex crime victims are not young children, but rather teenagers. And the predominant crime scenario does not involve violent stranger molesters posing online as other children in order to set up an abduction and an assault. Only 5% of the online sex crimes against children involved violence when meetings occurred, only 3% entailed an abduction. Nor is deception a major factor. Only 5% of offenders truly concealed the fact that they were adults from their victims and 80% by contrast were quite explicit about their sexual intentions towards these kids.
These are not mostly violent sex crimes but criminal seductions that take advantage of common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders lure teens to meet them for sexual encounters after weeks of very often quite explicit online conversations that play on the teen’s desires for romance, adventure, sexual information and understanding. These teens are often troubled youth with histories of family turmoil and physical and sexual abuse.
Jenna was a computer-savvy 13 year old, from a divorced family who frequented sex-oriented chat rooms under the screen name “evil_girl.” There she meets a 45 year old, Dave, who flatters her, gives her gifts, jewelry, talks about intimate things and drives across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When Dave is arrested with her, Jenna resists cooperating with police.
Many of the Internet sex crimes have commonalities with this case. In 73% of these crimes, the youth go to meet the offender on multiple occasions, for multiple sexual encounters. Half the victims were described by police as being in love with or feeling close friendship with the offender. In a quarter of the cases the victim ran away from home to be with the offender.Our research with youth suggests that giving out personal information is not what puts kids at risk. Nor does having a blog or a personal web site or frequenting My Space. What puts kids in danger for these crimes is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers, and having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web — going to sex sites and chat rooms, and interacting with lots of people there.
This has lots of implications for prevention. For one thing, we think it means that we need to make sure our messages are directed at teens, in language and format and from sources they relate to. Teens themselves, not parents. We also have to go beyond bland warnings about not giving out personal information.
This last paragraph, perhaps, might have been the most telling statement during the entire hearing. It’s become quite common for many of us to blame the technology itself for online predators, and in cases where online social networks have had lax standards for protecting young people, there’s certainly room to share part of the blame. Having said that, though, sometimes these arguments against Web 2.0 tools label these resources as fundamentally unsafe. Dr. Finkelhor’s testimony suggests that we may have a greater problem when it comes to teaching young people about appropriate behavior.
“To prevent these crimes, we have to take on more awkward and complicated topics and start with an acceptance of the fact that some teens are curious about sex and looking for romance and adventure,” he concluded. “So we need to educate them — about why hooking up with a 32 year old has major drawbacks like jail, bad press, public embarrassment ; and why they should be discouraging, not patronizing, sites and people who are doing offensive things online, fascinating as they may seem. We also need to make it easier for them to report the come-ons and the sexual picture requests, and we need to empower by-standers to take action – that is, friends, online observers in chat rooms, who may see this happening but today do little to stop it.” -andy