CMCM LOGO CMC Magazine / Volume 2, Number 6 / June 1, 1995 / Page 7

What's a (Teacher, Parent, Administrator) to Do?

by Steven J. Stratford (

As Internet access enters the consciousness of K-12 education, there's a nagging thought in our minds: what are we going to do about kids running into objectionable stuff? "Way back when," oh, maybe 18 months ago or so, it was not an issue -- few kids had access to the Internet, and of those who did, few knew how to retrieve dirty documents and pictures. However, with the electronic centerfolds in Playboy and Penthouse just a hotlist click away, and with* Usenet groups readily accessible, needless to say the issue is Hot. With a million kids surfing the Web every day, it's inevitable that they will encounter something to which they or their parents object.

I'm going to leave the definition of "objectionable stuff" intentionally broad: the problem is the same whether you're dealing with Japanimation cartoons, turn of-the-century peep show photos, stories of S & M or pedophilia, or the Playboy Bunny of the Month -- some people find it offensive and don't want their kids seeing it. I'm going to assume that the resource of interest is the entire Internet available to someone with a valid user-ID.

Yes, there are some technological approaches (filtering URLs, restricting domain names, filtering for specific words) and some human approaches (compiling acceptable URL lists, displaying symbols of "approval"); however, they won't solve the problem, because some are technically unworkable or impractical, don't cover all varieties of Internet protocols, or raise sticky censorship issues. Besides, tech-savvy hormone-driven teens will find a way.

The problem remains: what should educators, defined broadly, do to prepare children (and themselves) for the inevitable event of encountering objectionable materials on the Internet? To set the stage, here are three stories. They are all recent and true (by coincidence the genders are all male). What would be your ensuing course of action for each?

  • One teacher of middle school students had them in the computer lab learning Gopher and Web surfing. The teacher provided a hotlist with an entry called "Some Cool Things." In less than an hour of browsing they found "Entertainment"; soon afterward they found "Sex" and suddenly some were viewing pages of pointers to sexually-oriented sites.

  • On a mail list I subscribe to, someone anonymously posted a message with a subject line containing the F-word. People got upset, posted follow-up responses which contained the same subject line . . . . But that's not the story. A teacher who reads the list with his students met with a parent group one evening to discuss the role of the Web and technology in teaching. When he connected to his mail server to show them about email, what to their wondering eyes should appear on the screen but one of those F-word messages.

  • Someone I know downloaded a little control strip module called "Magic 8-Ball" from America Online. It's a cute program, and just the thing that pre-teen kids might want to put on their computers to play with in anxiety-ridden moments of indecision. Since control keys often affect functionality, they were trying different combinations. To their utter surprise, they discovered a totally undocumented feature: if you held the shift and control keys down, the 8-Ball displayed fortunes which used four-letter words, referenced sexual acts and used crude slang names for body parts.

These articles have one thing in common: they each illustrate the ease with which unsuspecting Internet users can encounter objectionable materials with very little effort. What's a teacher, administrator, or parent to do? I don't have the answers, but here are some suggestions as starting points. Later, I'll tell you the outcomes of each of these stories.

First, teachers must log enough personal Internet time to know locations of pointers to brothels, smut shacks, sin cities, and pinup galleries. You don't actually have to go there, just know where the pointers are -- most are clearly marked. If teachers aren't willing to explore the same way kids do, they will not only be caught off guard when it happens, but also embarrassed as well. Even popular jumping-off sites such as Yahoo have pages with pointers to pages with objectionable content. Obviously, teachers can't know everything, and the landscape constantly changes; however, knowing what's out there is a good start.

Second, informed teachers must be absolutely honest with parents as to what kinds of things their children might encounter, and how easily they might encounter them. If you get parents thinking along the lines of "Adult Bookstore," you'd be about right. Of course this shouldn't take priority over talking up the great and wonderful resources to be found most everywhere in cyberspace. But parents must be informed. Believe me, there are few people more difficult to satisfy than parents who have good cause to believe they have been duped or misled.

Third, parents must have the opportunity to weigh risks against benefits, and be offered the opportunity to choose whether their child will participate or not. Since it seems virtually impossible for teachers to guarantee that children will not encounter anything they (parents) might object to, it is up to the parents to decide if they are willing to risk it. I suspect most if not all properly informed parents would let their children participate. If not, the child will not suffer irreparable harm. There are plenty of other resources parents would deem "safe," like public television, libraries, and school media centers.

Fourth, administrators, for everybody's protection, must require signed consent forms of both parents and students. This consent form should spell out school policy on everything from sharing URLs or other location identifiers with classmates, to displaying the latest Playboy Bunny on your screen, to serving such materials onto the network with school computers. Consent forms accomplish the double duty of informing parents in writing of risks, and also providing some legal basis for disciplinary action in case of abuse. Students who are not old enough to sign consent forms probably should not be allowed free access to the Web, or else should be closely monitored.

Fifth, there are few things that head off trouble better than a well-thought-out instructional plan. If kids browse aimlessly, they will find the objectionable material -- you can count on it. However, when students explore the Web with a goal and purpose, they will be far less apt to get sidetracked, and, wonder of wonders, much more apt to learn what the teacher hopes they learn.

Finally, parents and teachers must speak (with one voice) to children about the risks involved. Younger children probably won't understand what's the big deal. Some teenagers will not see these kinds of things as a risk, but as an adventure; many others, having been warned, will voluntarily avoid them. At any rate, children must be informed of the risks, just like they are warned about hot stoves and busy streets and jumping off the garage roof.

Returning to the three stories, let's ask the question: what would you do? The answers are not simple. Here are real endings of the three stories:

  • The teacher in charge of the Web explorers took it as an opportunity to discuss censorship. No mention in the story (as I heard it) was made as to whether students actually viewed things that offended them, or if any parents found it necessary to get involved.

  • The teacher who subscribed to the listserv decided to remove his name from the list. Before unsubscribing, he expressed his disappointment to the list owner and publicly on the list.

  • Email was sent to the creator of the Magic 8-ball program, complaining about the objectionable surprise in his software. The software creator responded with an unprintable reply. America Online was informed about the software, which was promptly removed from its software forum.

There are no "best" answers, that's for sure.

The Internet is, among other things, a distributed media and information delivery system, sort of like TV, only more anarchic and less public. Many Web sites providing objectionable materials reside on private computers, and thus are beyond the reach of the kinds of official and unofficial societal regulation which occurs in corporeal community life. This makes it very difficult to "protect" kids; perhaps the best we can do is "prepare" them. If we can teach children to inform their actions with personal values, then we will have accomplished something very important in their education -- we will have empowered them to make wise, responsible decisions. -

Steve Stratford, former high school math/computer teacher and principal, is back at school working on a PhD in Educational Technology at the University of Michigan. He is a graduate research assistant on an NSF project with Elliot Soloway, studying technology-enhanced project-based science, with a focus on what students learn by constructing computer-based dynamic models of stream ecosystems.

Copyright © 1995 by Steve Stratford. All Rights Reserved.