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When it comes to online safety, education is the answer

Students everywhere are back in their classrooms beginning to tackle familiar subjects like math, reading, science and social studies. But how many students will receive classroom education about the importance of Internet safety? Hardly any—even in light of a growing concern about the safety of chat rooms and social networking sites.

Unlike summer breaks of the past, where kids would anxiously yearn for the social scene of classrooms and hallways, today kids can easily keep in touch online all summer long. Social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Xanga allow teens to stay in regular contact with their classmates during summer vacation. Ninety-six percent of teenagers use some form online social networking technologies, which also include instant messaging and chat forums.

Yet there’s a surprising lack of online safety education in our nation’s classrooms. Only a few states require that online safety education be taught in school. Last year Virginia became the first state to pass a law that mandates the integration of internet safety into their regular instruction. Florida’s Attorney General recently called for a similar approach, if not a law, to provide cyber safety education to all middle and high-school students. And over half of school districts pursue a prohibition—not an education—strategy by banning the use of social networking sites while on school property.

Instead of focusing on teaching kids to stay safe online, several states are pursuing new laws to regulate social networking websites. One such proposal would require anyone under 18 to have a parent’s permission before being allowed to join a social networking site such as MySpace.

At first glance, that seems like a reasonable idea, which is probably why so many politicians have latched onto it. But the devil is in the details, and big headlines don’t necessarily translate into a safer Internet. There are no databases or identification measures to verify that a person whom a child designates as a parent is in fact the parent. A parental consent law would fail to improve safety, and might actually lead parents to have a false sense of security that their children aren’t online and on social networking sites.

Experience and common sense suggest that education and good old-fashioned parenting are far better approaches than regulating social networking websites. Contrary to popular belief, most sex crimes committed by people that kids meet on the Internet are not liaisons based on false pretenses. Rather, a study by the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center found that adult offenders usually make no effort to deceive their victims about their real age or their interest in a sexual relationship. In the cases studied by the researchers only five percent lied about their age in order to pose as a minor, and 80 percent freely revealed their sexual desires. In 89 percent of these cases, underage victims willingly engaged in sexual activity with the adult offender.

Not surprisingly, most of these kids were at-risk youth looking for love and understanding they couldn’t find at home. When parents aren’t around or involved, some kids look elsewhere for acceptance.

When it comes to keeping kids safe, the Internet is a lot like a swimming pool. We all know that pools can be dangerous for children. We can try making them safer by building fences, locking gates, and installing pool alarms. But wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to teach our kids how to swim?

We owe it to our kids to teach them to surf, if not swim, the Internet safely. More than ever, online safety education is as much a back-to-school essential as backpacks and lunchboxes. It’s time to create a “fourth R”—along with reading, writing and arithmetic, we should teach kids about the risks of their online behavior.

— Braden Cox