Internet Safety Month, Part 7: The Importance of Online Safety Education

by on June 12, 2007 · 0 comments

June is “National Internet Safety Month,” and to coincide with it I have been posting a series essays on various aspects of online safety. (Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). In this installment, I will be discussing the importance of online safety education and media literacy efforts.

Education is a vital part of parental controls and online child protection efforts. In fact, if there is one point I try to get across in my new book, “Parental Controls and Online Child Safety: A Survey of Tools and Methods” it is that, regardless of how robust they might be today, parental control tools and rating systems are no substitute for education–of both children and parents. The best answer to the problem of unwanted media exposure is for parents to rely on a mix of technological controls, informal household media rules, and, most importantly, education and media literacy efforts. And government can play an important role by helping educate and empower parents and children to help prepare them for our new media environment.

That was the central finding of a blue-ribbon panel of experts convened in 2002 by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to study how best to protect children in the new interactive, “always-on” multimedia world. Under the leadership of former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, the group produced a massive report that outlined a sweeping array of methods and technological controls for dealing with potentially objectionable media content or online dangers. Ultimately, however, the experts used a compelling metaphor to explain why education was the most important tool on which parents and policymakers should rely:

Technology–in the form of fences around pools, pool alarms, and lock–can help protect children from drowning in swimming pools. However, teaching a child to swim–and when to avoid pools–is a far safer approach than relying on locks, fences, and alarms to prevent him or her from drowning. Does this mean that parents should not buy fences, alarms, or locks? Of course not–because they do provide some benefit. But parents cannot rely exclusively on those devices to keep their children safe from drowning, and most parents recognize that a child who knows how to swim is less likely to be harmed than one who does not. Furthermore, teaching a child to swim and to exercise good judgment about bodies of water to avoid has applicability and relevance far beyond swimming pools–as any parent who takes a child to the beach can testify.

Regrettably, we often fail to teach our children how to swim in the new media waters. Indeed, to extend the metaphor, it is as if we are generally adopting an approach that is more akin to just throwing kids in the deep end and waiting to see what happens. To rectify this situation, a serious media literacy agenda is needed in America. Media literacy programs teach children and adults alike to think critically about media to better analyze and understand the messages that media providers are communicating. Government should push media literacy efforts at every level of the education process. And those efforts should be accompanied by widespread public awareness campaigns to better inform parents about the parental control tools, rating systems, online safety tips, and other media control methods at their disposal.

What is Media Literacy?

Everyone understands what is meant by literacy. It’s about being able to read and write, of course. But more importantly, it is about comprehension and critical thinking skills. To be “media literate,” therefore, is to apply such skills when consuming media. It means we can effectively analyze, comprehend and critique the media we consume. “To be a functioning adult in a mediated society,” notes a report from the Center for Media Literacy, “one needs to be able to distinguish between different media forms and know how to ask basic questions about everything we watch, read or hear.”

Those questions include:

• What message or values are they trying to convey here?
• How was this made? Who was behind it?
• Is this fact or fiction? Fantasy or reality?
• Is there another perspective I should seek out on this issue?
• Could the story have been told or reported differently?
• What facts or values were left out?
• Where can I find the missing information or perspectives?
• How would others feel about this?
• Are they trying to sell me something? Is it really right for me?
• Is there something better I could be doing with my time?

Some of these critical thinking skills come to us naturally. Some are instilled by parents, but perhaps not regularly enough. “Simple questions about the media can start even at the toddler stage,” argue Center for Media Literacy scholars. This brings us back the excellent advice of the National Research Council blue-ribbon panel: “teaching a child to swim—and when to avoid pools—is a far safer approach than relying on locks, fences, and alarms to prevent him or her from drowning.”

Promoting Media Literacy and Consumer Education

(1) In the Classroom: Unfortunately, it is clear that not nearly enough media literacy instruction is being done within America’s educational process at any level. For the most part, media literacy is not routinely integrated into the curricula at elementary school, secondary school, high school, or college.

This situation must be reversed. And it wouldn’t take much to make it happen. After all, these are simple principles. These lessons could be drilled into children from a young age as part of other routine studies. And beyond basic media literacy, extensive Internet safety training should also be part of the mix. In September 2006, the Commonwealth of Virginia produced an outstanding report entitled “Guidelines and Resources for Internet Safety in Schools” that can serve as model legislation for other states in this regard. (The text of the enabling legislation can be found here).

State and local officials need to follow the road map outlined by Virginia and begin integrating media literacy and Internet safety lessons into educational curricula at every level. Librarians need to be trained to play a role, too. And funding needs to be provided for all those efforts.

Many other media literacy organizations and efforts exist that can assist in these endeavors. These organizations and efforts are summarized in a 2003 report by Marjorie Heins and Christina Cho of the Free Expression Policy Project (FEPP) entitled, “Media Literacy: An Alternative to Censorship.” Table 1 includes most of the groups and efforts discussed in the FEPP report as well as a few others.

Table 1: Media Literacy Organizations or Efforts

• Action Coalition for Media Education (
• Alliance for a Media Literate America (
• Cable in the Classroom (
• Center for Media Literacy (
• Children and the Media [a PBS project] (
• Media Awareness Network [Canada]
• Media Literacy Clearinghouse (
• Media Education Foundation (
• Media Literacy Online Project (
• National Telemedia Council (
• National PTA (
• Project Look Sharp (

A few of these efforts deserve special recognition. “Cable in the Classroom” (CIC) is a media literacy initiative sponsored by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the cable industry’s trade association. It serves as a model for what other companies or industries could do if they wanted to get more serious about promoting media education.

Started in 1989, the Cable in the Classroom program’s mission is “to foster the use of cable content and technology to expand and enhance learning for children and youth nationwide.” CIC accomplishes this mission by providing video and data connections to schools and libraries, providing access to vast archives of educational video content and enriching cable programming, and providing other learning materials (including a magazine and newsletter) to educators, parents, and children. CIC also offers helpful parenting tips on its website and in its printed materials, such as “Ten Ways You Can Use Television Actively with Your Children,” “Thinking Critically about Media: Schools and Families in Partnership,” and “Navigating the Children’s Media Landscape—A Parent’s and Caregiver’s Guide.” CIC also offers schools and parents a downloadable “Recording Highlights Calendar,” which notifies them when educational and enriching programming will be aired if they want to record it. The calendar breaks down programming into several categories, including: arts, English language arts, history, languages, math, preschool, science / health, social and personal development, and social studies.

The Center for Media Literacy (CML) also deserves special recognition for its excellent media literacy kits and orientation guides. Its report “Literacy for the 21st Century: An Overview and Orientation Guide to Media Literacy Education,” which was quoted above, is probably the best layman’s overview of media literacy available today. CML’s Media Lit Kit offers a step-by-step guide to integrating media literacy skills at every education level, from pre-K to college.

(2) Public and Parental Awareness Campaigns: Beyond classroom media literacy efforts, government could undertake public awareness campaigns. Government officials at the federal, state and local level should work together to devise media literacy campaigns focused on online safety, understanding the existing rating systems, how to use parental controls, and so on. These campaigns should include broadcast (radio and TV) ads, Internet websites and advertising, and promotional posters and brochures that could be distributed at schools and government institutions. Government has undertaken (or lent its support to) such public awareness campaigns to address other concerns in the past and had a great deal of success, including the following:

Forest fire prevention: Since the mid-1940s, the federal government has used the Smokey the Bear mascot to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires and wildfires.

Anti-littering and Land stewardship: The U.S. Forest Service began a widespread “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” anti-littering campaign in the early 1970s that featured the mascot Woodsy Owl. In recent years, the campaign has expanded its land stewardship mission and adopted a new slogan: “Lend a Hand—Care for the Land.”

Crime prevention: Beginning in the early 1980s, the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) developed its popular “McGruff the Crime Dog” campaign to assist law enforcement agencies seeking to deter crime or build awareness about criminal activities. The McGruff campaign, which included the “Take a Bite Out of Crime” motto, offers publications and teaching materials on a variety of topics; programs that can be implemented in communities and schools, local, regional, and national training programs; public service announcements broadcast nationwide starring McGruff the Crime Dog; and support for a national coalition of crime prevention practitioners. The NCPC reports that “now 25 years after McGruff’s first TV appearance, more than 75 percent of children recognize McGruff and over 4,000 law enforcement agencies own a McGruff suit.”

Physical fitness: The President’s Council on Physical Fitness promotes physical fitness and healthy living for citizens of all ages, but especially among children and teens. The program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006, circulates a wide variety of promotional information including classroom materials. Two prominent websites promote the Council’s efforts: and To further boost the visibility of the program and its fitness agenda, the Council has recruited well-known athletes to serve as chair or spokespersons: actor and former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner, baseball pitcher Stan Musial, college basketball coach Al McGuire, professional football coach George Allen, and professional football player Lynn Swann.

Seat-belt and air-bag safety: Perhaps the most successful campaign has been the efforts of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, numerous other state and local agencies, and many nonprofit organizations to educate the public about the benefits of wearing seat belts while in automobiles. Of course, these efforts were also accompanied by enforcement efforts, such as the “Click It or Ticket” warnings used in many states. Regardless, the educational component of these campaigns clearly helped communicate the importance of seat belts to the general public. The effort was later expanded to promote air bags in automobiles.

Government officials should seek to emulate these example if they want to construct a serious public awareness campaign about parental controls and online child protection efforts.

Currently, however, government efforts to promote awareness have been diffuse and largely uncoordinated among various agencies and programs. One notable exception at the federal level has been the website, which “provides practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information.” Six federal agencies collaborated to create the website. Although the initiative doesn’t focus exclusively on parental controls or online child protection, it does offer some helpful tips on that front. The effort includes a “Stop-Think-Click” promotion that recommends “Seven Practices for Safer Computing.” And the Federal Bureau of Investigation offers similar tips on its “Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety” website. But, again, these efforts are largely uncoordinated and receive very little promotion from federal agencies or congressional lawmakers.

If policymakers want to encourage more widespread awareness and adoption of parental control tools and online child safety methods, they will need to expand their current efforts considerably. As was the case with the public awareness campaigns discussed above, in addition to websites and online tips, a serious awareness campaign will need a variety of public service announcements and outreach efforts, brochures and banners, and other promotional campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, such a campaign must include state and local officials and agencies that can communicate the messages at the local level through various institutions (schools, libraries, law enforcement agencies, civic clubs, etc.) as well as nonprofit organizations, and even corporations and trade associations can assist in the effort.

Such an approach is embodied in a bill introduced by Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL) entitled the “Safeguarding America’s Families by Enhancing and Reorganizing New and Efficient Technologies Act of 2006,” or “SAFER NET” Act (H.R. 1008). The measure seeks to better coordinate and expand online safety education and efforts at the federal level. Specifically, Rep. Bean’s bill would do the following:

• Create a new Office of Internet Safety and Public Awareness at the Federal Trade Commission that is explicitly responsible for improving public awareness and education about Internet safety. This office would be the primary federal contact on Internet safety, serving as a resource and clearinghouse for consumers, the industry, and other Internet safety initiatives. It would also work with other entities (federal, state, local, private) to reduce redundancy and to promote best practices for promoting and ensuring internet safety. The office would also report to Congress annually on the state of Internet safety, emerging threats, and the costs to the economy.

• Launch a national public awareness campaign to educate Americans about online threats and about how to best protect themselves and their families from becoming the victims of online predators, financial schemes, ID theft, and more.

• Authorize federal grants to support efforts to promote Internet safety conducted by qualifying entities, such as schools, nonprofit organizations, state and local governments, law enforcement agencies, and businesses.

This bill represents an admirable attempt to better coordinate and expand Internet safety education. Importantly, there is no reason that Rep. Bean’s effort couldn’t be expanded to mention other parental control technologies and methods for other types of media besides the Internet. Rep. Bean also deserves credit for taking her message “on the road” by hosting an ongoing series of town hall meetings in her district to discuss online safety with her constituents. Presumably, if the legislation she introduced were ever implemented, the new FTC Office of Internet Safety and Public Awareness could create briefing plans and materials for other lawmakers who want to emulate Rep. Bean’s efforts to educate constituents. Officials from that office might be available to assist lawmakers or even accompany them on town hall speaking tours to discuss parental controls and online child safety.

Such an education-based approach has the added benefit of remaining within the boundaries of the Constitution and the First Amendment because government would not be seeking to restrict speech, but simply to better inform and empower parents regarding the parental control tools and techniques already at their disposal. The courts have shown themselves to be amenable to such educational efforts. For example, in a recent decision striking down an Illinois law that sought to regulate video game sales to minors, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals noted that parents are already actively involved in making decisions about the games their children buy. Noting that the parents are involved in well over 83 percent of their children’s video game purchases, the court goes on to argue that:

If Illinois passed legislation which increased awareness of the ESRB [Entertainment Software Rating Board voluntary rating] system, perhaps through a wide media campaign, the already-high rate of parental involvement could only rise. Nothing in the record convinces us that this proposal would not be at least as effective as the proposed speech restrictions.

This is why education, not regulation, represents the superior approach to address content concerns and online child safety. If Congress enacts more regulations aimed at banning certain types of websites or online content, those measures will be bogged down in the courts for years to come. For example, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was passed by Congress in 1998 in an effort to restrict minors’ access to adult-oriented websites. Almost 10 years later, the legislation remains stuck in jurisprudential limbo after endless legal wrangling about the constitutionality of the measure. It was recently struck down again by a lower court. If all the money that has been spent litigating this case had instead been spent on media literacy and online safety campaigns, it could have produced concrete, lasting results.

[In Part 8 of this series, I will discuss social networking safety.]

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