An imposter has been posting comments in my name lauding I-Safe. One comment posted read: “The best thing for parents to do is to learn about how to REALLY keep kids safe online. Go to http://www.isafe.org. This is the best Internet Safety Organization out there.”
This is NOT my opinion of I-Safe. I did write a review of I-Safe last fall, that I kept private. I think it is time to make this public.
Review of I-Safe Curriculum
Nancy Willard, November 28, 2007
The I-Safe organization has reportedly received over $11 million in funding from the Federal Government. HR 4134, which just passed the U.S. House of Representatives would award $5 million per year for the next five years to I-Safe, for a total of $25 million for one organization. Another bill, that has passed the Senate, S 2344, would provide funds for Internet safety on a competitive grant basis.
I have expressed concerns about the I-Safe curriculum over the past several years. My concerns are grounded in my understanding of youth risk online and effective risk-prevention education. I have also received many credible reports from educators who have used or reviewed the materials that the curriculum is lacking, engages in too much fear-mongering, does not keep the interest of students, does not reflect how young people are using the Internet, and does not adequately address the concerns.
After the passage of the bill in the House, I took the time to review the I-Safe curriculum and other related material. The lessons I reviewed have a 2006 copyright. I presume these are the newest materials. The following is an analysis of specific information or lessons and my concerns.
Evaluation of I-Safe
An independent evaluation was conducted of I-Safe, released April 2006. This evaluation concluded:
“Findings from the outcome evaluation noted positive and significant changes in knowledge between the treatment and comparison groups, both on average and over time. For the most part, there were no significant changes in behavior between the treatment and comparison groups on all scales.”
The conclusion that there were significant changes in knowledge should be kept in perspective, as the questions that led to this conclusion were:
How much do you know about plagiarism?
How much do you know about copyright laws?
How much do you know about cyber bullying?
How much do you know about computer viruses?
How much do you know about moderated chat rooms?
How much do you know about intellectual property?
How much do you know about Internet predators?
For these questions, the answer choices were: | Nothing at all | A little | Some | A lot.
These survey questions obviously do not solicit sufficient information to conclude an actual increase in knowledge – or the accuracy of that knowledge. Of greater concern is that receiving the I-Safe curriculum did not lead students to make any changes in potentially risky online behavior.
Fear-Mongering Regarding Dangerous Online Strangers
Of significant concern is the degree to which the I-Safe curriculum focuses on online stranger danger. Organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children discourage the use of stranger danger messages. NCMEC indicates that children do not understand how to judge whether or not other people are safe. Further, NCMEC argues that children should not be taught that the world is a scary place.
Online stranger danger messages are conveyed throughout the I-Safe curriculum:
Kindergarten: “Sometimes strangers do not tell the truth on the Internet. They might be trying to trick people into believing them, so it’s not a good idea for anyone to send messages back and forth with a stranger.”
Fourth Grade: “Think about what you know about being safe in your community. How many of you know that strangers sometimes do bad things to trick kids?” …“Sometimes strangers try to do bad things on the Internet to trick kids too. Sometimes strangers lie about who they are, how old they are, what their names are, and where they live. They may even pretend to be your friend in an email or other type of computer message. They are trying to trick you into believing them, so don’t be fooled, be safe!” (Note: At this age, many of these students are regularly waddling around Club Penguin safely communicating with online strangers.)
Seventh Grade Powerpoint on Predators: “A predator is someone who victimizes somebody else. A predator uses lies, secrecy or stealth to get close enough to another to harm them.” … “Not all online solicitations are unwanted. Sometimes you meet someone online and WANT to meet them offline. Predators want you to be a Willing Participant. (Note: Nowhere in this Powerpoint was the term “sex” used.)
Seventh Grade Handout on Willing Participants: “When you engage in an online friendship with a stranger, you are considered a “willing participant.”
Questions regarding Managing Risk were also asked in the I-Safe Evaluation: The survey asked the young people the following questions (pg 151 of the report):
How likely is it that someone you meet online would pretend to be someone they are not?
How likely is it that someone you meet online would try to hurt or scare you?
If you reveal your personal information to someone you only met online, how likely is it that person will try to contact you?
If you agree to have a face-to-face meeting with someone you only talk to online, how likely is it that the person will try to harm you?
The answer choices were: | Not at all likely | A little likely | Somewhat likely | Very likely. The answer “very likely was considered “desirable.” (p. 64 of the PDF)
To quote from the NCMEC document:
“Today, kids need to be empowered with positive messages and safety skills that will build their self esteem and self confidence while helping to keep them safer. Kids don’t need to be told the world is a scary place. … Rather, they need to know their parent, guardian, or another trusted adult is there for them if they are in trouble; and most adults they encounter in their lives are basically good people.”
Today’s “digital natives” (young people) know that many “digital immigrants (adults) do not understand the Internet. They will dismiss fear-based messages as evidence that adults fear what they do not understand. Young people will be interacting with strangers online. They and their parents need to know how to find safer places to engage in these communications, limit access to personal information, evaluate the trustworthiness of anyone met online, the danger signs, and how to meet safely.
Of significant concern is the suggestion by I-Safe that any teen who is willing to “engage in an online friendship with a stranger” should be considered a willing participant in online predation.
Providing Inaccurate Information
A document entitled Eluding Internet Predators Tip Sheet is provided on the I-Safe site. The document states:
“One in five children who use computer chat rooms has been approached over the Internet by a pedophile.
Only one in four youth who received a sexual solicitation reported the incident to an adult.”
The first statement is inaccurate; the second misleading. The data reported came from a 2000 study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which was updated in 2006. A pedophile is an adult interested in sex with children – not teens. The 2000 and 2006 study data indicates that some teens (not children) were receiving unwelcome sexual messages online – the majority of which came from other teens.
Many teens did not report – why? Because, according to them, the situation was “not serious enough.” They reported successful strategies to deal with the situation, including leaving the situation or blocking, confronting, or ignoring the sender.
Encouraging the Authoritarian Delivery of Incomplete Information
The curriculum scripts provided by I-Safe encourage an authoritarian-style delivery of information to students by their teacher. The following is the script from a lesson on Personal Safety, Grade 4:
Question: “Can anyone think of a way we communicate, or write to each other, in Cyberspace?” Provide time for students to respond.” (Gauge this part of the discussion to your students’ Internet experience level: Briefly review that on the Internet, people can communicate through email.) …
“We talked a little bit about e-mail messages in the last lesson. E-mail messaging is a great way to communicate with someone you and your parents know. But…no one should be making you fell uncomfortable – ever! If they are, talk it over with your parents.”
“Now let’s talk about other kinds of cyber communication.” …
Question: “Does anyone know what instant messaging is?” Provide time for student responses. “Instant messaging is just what it sounds like – messages that are sent instantly in a little window on your computer screen. People make Buddy lists of the friends they want to exchange instant messages with.”
Question: “Who knows what a chat room is? Has anyone gone into a chat room before, or have you watched while your older brother or sister has been chatting”. Present the idea: “A chat room looks like a window that appears on your computer, or a webpage. People communicate, talk, by typing in their messages. It’s a lot faster than e-mail. Lots of people can look at the messages at the same time, and everyone can see everything that each person types.”
Question: “Does anyone know what a bulletin board is?” Provide time for student responses. (Refer to your own classroom bulletin board, where you post things.) Present the idea: “Online bulletin boards are another way to communicate in Cyberspace. Someone types in a message and it appears on a webpage. Anyone who goes to that webpage will be able to read what it says.
To put this lesson into perspective, consider the following. Many fourth graders are communicating on animated avatar sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz. Some also have MySpace accounts – not that they should and many are using instant messaging. Hopefully, they are not going to chat rooms other than monitored places like Club Penguin. Bulletin boards are an older technology and are highly unlikely to be of any interest to fourth graders. Many fourth grade teachers have only had experience with email.
This lesson directs the teacher to provide information about communications technologies to students – who likely know more about some of these technologies than the teacher. It omits several communication technologies that are popular with today’s youth. Further, there is no discussion of important safety guidelines for these technologies. For example, when students implement instant messaging, they should make sure their address is not made public and should limit their buddy list to people they know, or friends of friends with parent permission.
Registration of Students as I-Mentors Without Asking Parent Permission
In the curriculum, students are encouraged to register on the I-Safe site as I-Mentors. In the I-Safe online registration, there is an option to check that you are a “Kid or Teen.” There is also an option to indicate you are with an “Elementary School.” The registration form requests full name and email address.
At no time does the registration process require obtaining parent permission before providing this information, despite the fact that these are young children.
Instruction that is Not Developmentally Appropriate
I-Safe provides a lesson for kindergarten students on computer viruses. Some of the statements suggested for the teacher include:
“Does anyone know what a virus is?” Provide time for student responses, and provide appropriate feedback. (A virus is a germ that can make you sick.) “Computers can get viruses too, but they don’t catch them from people’s germs. Let’s find out what i-Buddy learned about computer viruses.” “i-Buddy found out from his computer repair man that sometimes computers get computer viruses from messages that hide in e-mail.” “The best way to keep your computer from catching a virus is never to try to open an e-mail letter without help from your parents. That’s the best way you can keep a computer virus from making your computer sick. You will be a hero for your whole family if you keep a virus from attacking your computer!”
Kindergarteners are learning their “A, B, C’s” and “1, 2, 3’s.” They should not be considered responsible for maintaining computer security against viruses.
Messages that Will Not be Effective in Communicating to Young People
Here is text from the I-Safe Powerpoint on Piracy, Donny the Downloader, for intermediate and middle school students:
“Let’s talk Piracy
So what is piracy? When you hear the term “piracy” what do you think of? The high seas, patched eyes, parrots, and PIRATES?
What did pirates do? What were they known for?
Pirates were thieves. They were unethical, immoral, and operated illegally!
Just like the pirates of old, current pirates also operate illegally – stealing copyrighted items. Piracy is the unauthorized reproduction or use of a copyrighted book, recording, television program, patented invention, trademarked product, etc.”
The approach of trying to denigrate pirates in the eyes of young people will be totally ineffective – and will probably even encourage copyright infringement. I-Safe has not paid attention to the media. Pirates are all the rage with the younger set. They are the heroes. They are the scoundrels who make off good. They are the Robin Hoods – robbing from the rich to serve the poor. They are the ones to be emulated – if you can get away with it. And online you can.
Now, if you see any blog comments noting that I applaud the I-Safe curriculum, please let me know – or provide a link to this page. Thanks bunches. Nancy