Carlsbad, CA -- When Teri Schroeder ran a legal chat room on AOL for judges, lawyers, and police officers, she never guessed that they would have teenagers and younger children visiting the chat room.
"We were a trusted community and the kids found us," says the President of I-SAFE. "They told us that they were lured into private chat rooms and exploited. Some kids had been stalked and exposed to inappropriate content. They didn't feel that they could go to their parents, so they came to us to ask about their rights."
In response, Schroeder founded I-SAFE, an educational non-profit to promote safety for children online. The goal of the organization is to empower children with skills and knowledge to act responsibly and be safe online. Based on a successful pilot program in American Fork, Utah, the organization received a Congressional Grant to spread the cyber safety curriculum to schools and communities nationwide in 2002-03.
The Access Dilemma
Schroeder's story illustrates the dilemma of the ever-increasing number of children with online access: children are sophisticated users of technology, and they are also targets. While children adapt well to the online environment -- navigating through chat rooms, instant messaging, multiple email accounts, and Internet sites -- the adults responsible for their protection (parents, teachers, neighbors, principals) may not fully understand what or who they have access to and who has access to them. In addition, the "cyber world" feels virtual, unconnected from consequences and laws in the real world.
According to A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet, 75 percent of 14-17 year olds and 65 percent of 10-13 year olds use the Internet. They have access at home, in school, and in public places. One in five children online received sexual solicitation or were approached in 1999 and only 25 percent of those children told a parent (Online Victimization, Journal of the American Medical Association Report, June 2001).
" The Internet is powerful and we embrace that medium," says Schroeder. "The purpose of the I-SAFE Foundation is to empower students to make independent decisions so that they are not in a reactive situation. We want to empower parents to recognize the signs of victimization and give their children a hand to be pulled out rather than isolating them further."
Learning To Be Safe
In summer 2002, ISAFE launched the "Safe School Education Initiative and Outreach Campaign" in 24 states to teach age-appropriate curriculum to teachers who then deliver the lessons to students with the support of local law enforcement agencies. The curriculum addresses a range of topics empowering students to protect themselves and take responsibility for their activities:
- Living as a net citizen in the cyber community.
- Personal safety as a cyber citizen in the 21st Century.
- Technology and the computer virus.
- Plagiarism and the theft of intellectual property.
- Law enforcement and Internet safety.
The cyber safety approach of the organization combines personal protection with personal responsibility. According to Schroeder, students do not always understand that the same laws apply in the online world as in the real world. For example, hacking is trespassing, and email threats or stalking are taken seriously. When children break the law online, they will be held responsible for their actions along with their parents.
High Risk Students
For expansion in 2002-03, I-SAFE selected states where students are considered at a "high-risk" for computer-related incidents. These factors include a high rate of computers per capita, families with two working parents, the incidence of cyber crimes, and very affluent or low-income areas. I-SAFE works with each state department of education to identify the best method of reaching the widest audience for training, and develops community outreach events to raise awareness among students, parents and community members. I-SAFE also helps foster the partnership between local security organizations and schools in delivering the curriculum.
While schools provide some protection through filtered access to the Internet, acceptable use policies, and adult monitoring, the home offers many students complete freedom in the online world. The I-SAFE web site offers ground rules (http://www.isafe.org/groundrules.htm) for parents to start a conversation about online safety and responsibility.
A Safe Place
Since 1997, the I-SAFE Clubhouse for children has offered a secure place for kids to engage in conversations about topics that interest them and to meet other like-minded individuals online. A teen advisory board sets the rules, and participants agree to behave accordingly. The clubhouse is moderated by the "Cyberpatrol" team of student volunteers, who are interviewed with a parent by I-SAFE staff.
The Cyberpatrol members moderate chat rooms for inappropriate behavior and move kids to timeout when they break the rules. Because they want to rejoin the group, rule-breakers serve their time and moderate their behavior. If someone has a problem, they can contact a Cyberpatrol member and expect a response. The community members model acceptable behavior to each other in the Clubhouse and beyond.
"Kids like boundaries," says Schroeder. "They don't like to be flamed, stalked or to have pornographic activity pushed at them."
The Internet is a powerful medium to support childhood development, education and entertainment activities. While children know more about using the tools than most adults, they still need guidance.
"As parents, our job is to protect children, not victimize them because of our lack of understanding," says Schroeder. "Your children are citizens of two worlds today. Youth can make a difference. Embrace the community and applaud the progress that our youth are making."
For more information, visit I-SAFE's web site at www.isafe.org.