Teaching Internet Safety in School

The National Computer Security Alliance released a report February 2010 that investigated the delivery of Internet safety education, The State of K-12 Cyberethics, Cybersafety and Cybersecurity Curriculum in the U.S.

The survey found that America’s young people aren’t receiving adequate instruction to use digital technology and navigate cyberspace in a safe, secure and responsible manner and are ill-prepared to address these subjects.

More than half of administrators and technology coordinators agree their school/school district requires cyberethics, cybersafety and cybersecurity curriculum be taught in the classroom setting. However, a third of teachers have not taught any topics related to cyberethics in the past 12 months and more than 4 out of every 10 teachers have not taught any topics related to cybersafety or cybersecurity in the past 12 months.

Unfortunately, because of how the survey was constructed and interpreted, it did not yield a clear picture of the current situation. A large part of the problem is grounded in the fact that this was a self-report survey, that did not provide any objective way to measure the accuracy of the self-reports.

The survey asked for responses on the following questions: “My school/school district does an adequate job of preparing students regarding Cyberethics, safety, and security issues.” The responses on “strongly or somewhat agree” included administrators 84%, technology coordinators 83%, and teachers 65%. “My school/school district does an adequate job of preparing teachers to discuss with students topics regarding Cyberethics, safety, and security issues.” The responses were administrators 77%, technology coordinators 78%, and teachers 56%.

NCSA concluded that young people “aren’t receiving adequate instruction.” The issue of what kind of education or professional development constitutes “adequate” was never discussed – either from the respondent’s perspective of what constitutes “adequate” or how NCSA made the determination that the current efforts were “not adequate.”

It appears from the initial two paragraphs published in the NCSA Fact Sheet, the assessment of “adequacy” was at least in part tied to the question of whether every teacher had discussed these subjects in their classroom in the last year. Many had not. However, 72% of the teachers surveyed taught content subject matter. Only 4% were technology teachers and 2% were media specialists who are the likeliest teachers to be delivering instruction in this area.

NCSA’s apparent perspective is that all teachers should be teaching Internet safety. This is improbable, especially at this juncture. Given the instructional objectives that teachers are required to address within their content areas, the degree to which they apparently are also at least mentioning Internet safety appears to be commendable.

In today’s schools, it is most probable that technology teachers and media specialists would be assigned the responsibility of providing much of instruction on these issues, hopefully with increasing involvement of health educators and guidance counselors to address the higher risk areas of cyberbullying, sexting, and other risky sexual and personal relationship concerns. These professionals were not specifically surveyed.

The situation is even more complicated. If administrators and teachers have been teaching, or have selected material that teaches, that 1 in 7 young people have been sexually solicited online by a predator, that predators are tracking teens based on personal contact information and abducting them, or they are pretending to be other teens to trick them into meeting without disclosing that they are adults interested in sex, then when they are teaching is inaccurate. See CSRIU report.

NCSA also asked how prepared administrators and teachers were in teaching certain subjects. An amazing 75% of administrators and 50% of teachers indicated they felt prepared to teach about cyberbullying and 66% of administrators and 48% of teachers felt prepared to teach about Sexting or sending sexually explicit messages or photos by mobile devices.

I am a nationally recognized authority on cyberbullying and author of the first book to be published on this subject. In January 2010, I wrote extensive report on sexting. I would raise significant doubts about this perception of preparedness. Cyberbullying and sexting situations involve complicated harmful interpersonal relationship concerns that are exceptionally challenging to address both instructionally and when responding to specific situations. Given the current limited degree of understanding of these situations, it is exceptionally doubtful that the overwhelming majority of administrators or teachers could teach anything more than “don’t do it, don’t respond, tell an adult – and watch out you will be arrested for disseminating child porn.” This is not, in my professional opinion, “adequate” instruction and I sincerely doubt that these professionals are “prepared” to teach about these issues effectively.

Further, these high risk concerns cannot be effectively addressed simply as “cybersafety” subjects. Nor are they subjects that can and should be taught by all content teachers. The teachers who will be most effective in addressing these issues with students will be the health educators and counselors who have the training and expertise to provide instruction in areas of personal and sexual relationships.

The mission of NCSA is to address computer security issues. The organization apparently is striving to be helpful in this arena. But it is clear from an analysis of this survey construction, its results, and the interpretation of these results, that educators must take primary responsibility for researching these issues and developing comprehensive strategies to move forward with effective instruction and professional development.

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