Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet: A Guide for Educators

By Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D.

Chapter 4. Preparing Young People To Make Safe and Responsible Choices

You'll look up and down streets, look 'em over with care. About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there." With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you're too smart to go down any not-so-good streets.
   - Dr. Suess

Protect or Prepare

The bottom line presented in the NRC Report is that the best way to protect young people is to prepare them to deal with the concerns and dangers present on the Internet.

The development of strategies to address issues of concern regarding the use of the Internet by young people must be grounded in knowledge of effective parenting and educational strategies. Parents and educators already know a great deal about helping young people learn to engage in safe and responsible behavior.

Raising Children in the "Real World"

When children are too young to comprehend the dangers, to understand the expectations for their behavior, and to independently engage in safe and responsible decision-making, we keep them in safe places and supervise their activities. We keep them in fenced play yards. When we take our children to places that may be less safe, such as a public park, we even more closely supervise their activities. We also use these public excursions as opportunities to teach our children. We teach them about potential dangers, how to recognize dangerous situations, and what actions to take to keep themselves safe. We introduce these lessons with an understanding of the cognitive development and sensitivities of their age.

We also teach children about our positive expectations for their behavior. We teach them about respect for others and actions that are necessary to support the good of the community. And if they engage in unsafe or irresponsible behavior, we intervene with appropriate discipline. We use transgressions as "teachable moments" to review and reinforce the lessons of safe and responsible behavior.

As children grow, we allow them increasing freedom. We do not expect that teenagers will be satisfied remaining in fenced play yards. But we remain engaged. We know that young people who have parents and other influential adults who remain "hands-on," through active involvement, ongoing communication, and supervision, are much less likely to engage in unsafe or irresponsible behavior.

New issues related to potential dangers and expectations for behavior emerge. Issues that would not have been appropriate to address when a child was younger, such as date rape, become important issues to address at this age. We use the same pattern of instruction -- providing information about the issue of concern, how the recognize a situation presenting the concern, and how to effectively respond to the situation.

In sum, helping children and teenagers learn to engage in safe and responsible behavior involves imparting:

  • Knowledge about potential dangers or concerns and expectations or standards for responsible behavior.
  • Effective decision-making skills that include being able to recognize situations presenting concerns and knowing appropriate or effective responses to such situations.
  • Motivation to behave in a safe and responsible manner.

Application to Cyberspace

How do these basic lessons in raising safe and responsible children translate to the Internet? First and foremost, we have to recognize that even though we may be accessing the Internet from the safety of a classroom or family room, the Internet is very much a public place. Allowing young children to have supervised, open access to the Internet (filtered or not) without close supervision would be the equivalent of leaving a child to play unsupervised in New York City's Central Park. Older children need to have the knowledge and skills to make safe and responsible choices in these public places.

Elementary Students
Students in elementary school are too young to be fully informed about Internet dangers and should not be expected to be able to engage in safe behavior in unsupervised environments. When children are of elementary school age, their use of the Internet should be almost exclusively in "safe Internet spaces" -- environments that provide access to only pre-reviewed, educationally appropriate sites. Their use of electronic communications should likewise be in safe communication environments, such as a classroom e-mail account.

Experienced Internet researchers know the difficulties in finding the quality resources on the Internet and distinguishing such resources from the non-quality resources. Now imagine a 3rd grade student trying to find the quality resources that are at a 3rd grade reading level! Elementary students should simply not be expected to have the necessary skills to be effective researchers on the open Internet. There are simply too many sites that are not appropriate information resources for students at this level of their education. Far too much time would be spent in unproductive searching, and not enough time learning the subject matter under study.

There are a variety of ways to establish these safe Internet spaces. The most common approaches are district or class educational web sites. Some state education systems offer an education web site. The Oregon School Library Information System at is an example of such a service. The Education World has an excellent educational web site for students. Subscription services are available from some educational technology companies. There are also technologies that can be used to provide greater security in the establishment of such safe spaces, including proxie servers and the new Internet Content Rating Association system. Clearly, more work in this area is necessary.

If it is necessary for elementary age children to use the open Internet, they should do so only in highly structured environments with close over-the-shoulder supervision.

Since children in elementary school are also using the Internet at home, parents should be provided with information on how to establish safe Internet spaces on their system at home. Parents can be provided with specific information on establishing the school's educational portal as the default portal on their home browser. Parents should also be provided with Internet safety information that is appropriate for elementary age children.

There is one vitally important safety skill that all children should be taught prior to using the Internet, even in safe environments. All children should know that there is "yucky" stuff on the Internet that, through no fault of their own, may appear on the computer screen. Children should know that if "yucky" material ever appears on their screen, they should immediately turn off the screen (the process to do this may vary depending on the computer system) and tell a teacher or their parent, if at home.

Secondary Students
When students are in middle school and high school, access should be more open and the focus should shift to instruction on basic safety skills, supervision, monitoring, and responsive discipline. The primary protection at this point should be the student's own skills and motivation. One strong motivation for responsible behavior in school should be the significant likelihood that irresponsible behavior will be detected and result in discipline.

But more importantly, the focus must shift to the importance of making choices on the Internet that are in accord with the teenager's emerging sense of personal identity and moral values. This issue is discussed more fully below.

The best time to begin to more fully instruct students about safe and responsible online behavior is the last year of elementary school or early in middle school. At this age, students will be demanding more freedom on the Internet at home. They will also be old enough to understand issues related to the potential dangers or inappropriateness of certain materials and to successfully utilize safety skills.

Schools may want to engineer a gradual opening of the levels of access, rather than providing precocious and curious beginning middle school students with wide open access on their first day of school. For example, middle schools may want to generally limit student access to Internet safe spaces, but allow specific exceptions. Exceptions may be specific classroom activities that require open access or open access upon request in the library, if the student has been unable to find necessary information in the safe Internet space. Schools may also want to require successful completion of an Internet safety and responsible use class prior to allowing such open access.

Addressing Issues of Responsible Behavior

Moral Development
To address the question of how to help young people use information and communication technologies in an responsible manner, we must consider how young people learn to engage in an responsible, ethical behavior. Furthermore, we must examine how information and communication technologies and the emerging cyber environment may impact their learning and behavior.

The following discussion comes from the introduction to the author's book Computer Ethics, Etiquette, and Safety. This book is distributed by The International Society for Technology in Education[2].

As young people grow, their emerging cognitive development enables them to gain increasingly accurate perceptions of the world around them. Three principal external influences combine with this emerging cognitive development to affect moral development and behavior. These factors are:

  • Recognition that an action has caused harm. When a young person engages in inappropriate action and recognizes that his or her action has caused harm to another, this leads to an empathic response, which leads to feelings of remorse.
  • Social disapproval. When a young person engages in inappropriate action and recognizes that others have become aware of and disapprove of this action, this leads to "loss of face" and feelings of shame.
  • Punishment by authority. When a young person engages in an inappropriate action and this action is detected by a person with authority over the young person, this leads to punishment imposed by the person in authority, which can lead to feelings of regret, but also can lead to anger at the authority.

These three external influences not only affect behavior in both young people and older people, they also play a major role in a young person's moral development. During adolescence, young people develop a sense of their own personal identity. This personal identity incorporates an internalized personal moral code. In adolescents and adults, our personal moral code functions as an internal influence for ethical and responsible behavior. Behavior is influenced both by the external factors, as well as the internalized moral code.

When we perceive that we have violated our own personal moral code, we feel guilty -- unless we can rationalize our actions in some manner. We are all willing, under certain circumstances to waiver from our personal moral code. We each have an internalized limit about how far we are willing to waiver from the ideal set forth in our personal moral code. This limit protects against unlimited inappropriate activity[3].

There are a number of factors that appear to influence behavior that waivers from our personal moral code. We are more likely to waiver when our assessment is that:

  • There is an extremely limited chance or no chance of detection and punishment.
  • The inappropriate action will not cause any perceptible harm.
  • The harm may be perceptible, but is small in comparison with the personal benefit we will gain.
  • The harm is to a large entity, such as a corporation, and no specific or known person will suffer any loss.
  • Many people engage in such behavior, even though some may consider the behavior may be considered illegal or unethical.
  • The entity or individual that is or could be harmed by the action has engaged in unfair or unjust actions.

Impact of Information and Communication Technologies
Information and communication technologies have a profound impact on the external influences of behavior.

Technology does not provide tangible feedback.
When people use technology, there is a lack of tangible feedback about the consequences of actions on others. People are distanced from a perception of the harm that their behavior has caused.

This lack of tangible feedback undermines the empathic response, and thus undermines feelings of remorse. The lack of tangible feedback makes it easier to rationalize an inappropriate action.

Technology allows us to become invisible.
In fact, people are not totally invisible when they use the Internet. In most cases, they leave "cyberfootprints" wherever they go. But despite this reality, the perception of invisibility persists. Some actions using technology are quite invisible, such as borrowing a friend's software program and installing it on your own computer. It is also possible to increase the level of invisibility with the use of technology tools. Establishing a pseudonymous account enhances invisibility. The fact that many people may be engaged in a similar activity also leads to a perception of invisibility because individual actions are such a "drop in the pond" that they are unlikely to be detected.

Invisibility undermines the potential impact of both authority and social disapproval. If a transgression cannot be detected and a person is unlikely to be punished, threats of punishment are not likely to have any impact whatsoever on behavior.

The issue of the impact of invisibility on human behavior is not new. Plato raised this very same issue in his story about the Ring of Gyges. In this story, a shepherd found a magical ring. When the stone was turned to the inside, the shepherd became invisible. Thus questions were raised: How will we choose to behave if we are invisible? Will we do whatever we want to do because we know that nobody can catch and punish us? Will we do something that could hurt someone because we know that nobody can tell who did this? Or will we do what we know is right?

It is important to recognize that young people are using the Internet, and thus are influenced by the lack of tangible feedback and perceptions of invisibility, at the same time that they are in the process of developing their internalized personal moral code. We do not know how this will affect their development and internalization process.

Strategies to Address Lack of Tangible Feedback and Invisibility

Focus on Personal Values
Help young people learn to do what is right in accord with their own personal values, regardless of the potential of detection and punishment.

To do this, we must enhance their reliance on their own internalized personal moral code. We must shift our focus away from rules and threats of punishments. Threats of punishment are simply an ineffective approach when the likelihood of detection and punishment is so remote. The message: "Don't do this because it is against the rules" has limited impact if you believe that you are invisible and that your actions cannot and will not be detected and punished.

Within the school environment, there clearly should be a lack of invisibility due to the effective supervision and monitoring strategies. But outside of the school environment, the perception and reality of invisibility will exist. Our goal as educators should be to prepare students for this environment.

The key to such preparation is education and appropriate discipline. We must focus the attention of young people on the reasons for the rules, rather than the potential of detection and punishment. Rules are generally enacted because actions that violate the rules can cause harm to someone else. So our focus must be on the potential harm, not the rule. In a world where we are invisible, a much more powerful message is: "Don't do this because if you do you will harm someone by (describe the possible harmful impact of the action)." By focusing on the reasons for the rules, we can help young people develop a more understanding and caring moral code.

Recognize Unseen Harm
Help young people understand how actions can cause harm to people they can not see.

Empathy actually has two components -- a feeling component and a thinking component. When we see or hear someone who is happy or sad, we begin to feel the same way inside. This is the feeling part of empathy. As young people grow, they also gain the ability to understand cognitively how other people think and feel. They learn to look at things from their perspective. This is the thinking part of empathy. Thinking about how someone else feels can also affect how we feel inside. The lack of tangible feedback impairs the feeling component of empathy. We must help young people learn to rely on the thinking part of empathy when they use information technologies.

Use Effective Decision-Making Strategies
Help young people learn to use effective decision-making strategies to help guide their behavior in a responsible way.

These strategies must be effective even though young people do not have tangible feedback and may perceive themselves to be invisible. Effective decision-making strategies, written in language that can be used to communicate with young people include:

  • Golden Rule Test How would you feel if someone did the same thing to you? If you would not want to have someone do the same thing to you, then the action is probably wrong.

    A version of the Golden Rule is found in every religion in the world. Considering how we would feel if someone did the same thing to us is a powerful ethical decision-making strategy.

  • Trusted Adult Test What would your mom or dad, guardian, or another adult who is important in your life think? Your parents, guardians, or other adults who are important to you may not understand the Internet, but they know a lot about deciding whether an action is right or wrong. Considering how your parents, guardians, or other important adult would judge your actions, you will help you to act in accord with your family's values.

    Philosophers call this the Moral Exemplar. Young people can be encouraged to model the behavior of those whose opinions are important to them. This test also brings in the importance of acting in accord with the values that have been established by the family.

  • Is There a Rule? Generally, rules or laws have been created to protect the rights of people and to serve the common good. Rules and laws provide good guidance on whether or not an action is right or wrong.

    It is important for young people to recognize the basis upon which rules have been created. Rules are created to protect the rights of people and to serve the common good. The focus must always be on the reason for the rule, not the rule itself. This is a very important distinction. Young people may think that if they are invisible and no one can punish them for violating a rule, then the rule is of no importance.

  • Front Page Test If your action were reported on the front page of the newspaper, what would other people think? One way to make good decisions is to act as if the whole world can see what you are doing.

    The Front Page Test is another decision-making strategy that can help to address the perceptions of invisibility. There have been a number of widely reported incidents where an individual thought his or her actions were private, only to find them ultimately reported on the front pages of various newspapers.

  • If Everybody Did It Test What would happen if everybody made a decision to do this? Consider what kind of world this would be if everyone did what you are thinking of doing. You might think that you are only causing a "little bit of harm." But if everyone else is also doing a little bit of harm, then someone else might be suffering a lot of hurt.

    This test is an updated version of Kant's Moral Imperative. Encourage students to add up the large amount of harm caused by many people engaging in small acts of harm.

  • Real World Test Would it be OK if you did this action, or a similar action, in the real world? Just because you do something in cyberspace, does not mean that you cannot hurt someone. Actions in cyberspace can cause just as much harm to someone else as actions in the real world.

    Considering actions in the context of the "real world" can help to create a better understanding of the consequences of actions on unseen others. The Real world Test will help to bring about a better understanding of the real harm caused to real people.

  • Gandhi Test Sometimes when people behave inappropriately on the Internet they claim that they are actually trying to make the Internet a better place. Mathama Gandhi was a great leader in India who led a successful revolution using nonviolent resistance. One of the things he said was: "We must the future we wish to see. It is a good thing for people to try to make the Internet and the world a better place. But you will be most successful in making things better if you behave in a way that you want others to behave.

Ensure Accountability
Remain "hand's on" while young people are learning these lessons.

The children of parents who are "hand's on" -- that is know where their children are, what they are doing, and who they are doing it with -- and who keep lines of communication open, are much less likely to engage in risky behavior. When young people are using the Internet, responsible adults in their environment need to remain "hand's on." Effective supervision and monitoring are essential strategies to remain "hand's on."

Internet Addiction

Although there is no solid data addressing this concern, it appears that there are emerging concerns related to Internet addiction among a portion of Internet users, including young people . Internet addiction bears significant resemblance to other behavioral addictions, such as gambling and shopping. Dr. Kimberly Young has conducted an extensive survey of Internet addiction and has written a book that provides guidance for addressing the concern, Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction and a Winning Strategy for Recovery[5]. This work focuses primarily on adults, with one chapter addressing Internet addiction and children.

One important finding made by Young is that people who get addicted to the Internet frequently suffer from significant emotional or psychiatric problems before they ever go online[6]. This factor may be relevant in considering the possible risks of Internet addiction during the sometimes tumultuous teenage years. She also found distinctive gender differences that also appear to be very relevant to patterns of youth use of the Internet.

Men generally appear to be seeking power, status, and dominance. They gravitate more toward the sources of information glut, aggressive interactive games, and sexually explicit chat and cyperporn. Women embrace the chat rooms as a means to form supportive relationships, seek romance, or complain about their husbands[7].

Young provided a set of warning signs that a young person may be having problems with Internet addiction. It is likely that many of these warning signs will be apparent at school. Educators, especially school counselors, should be appraised of these warning signs and consider the possibility of such concerns with respect to students who appear to be having problems. Here are Young's descriptions of the warning signs:

  • Excessive fatigue. Does you child struggle to get up in the morning more than he or she did before the computer came along? Do you see signs of drowsiness at dinner and on weekends? As with adults, change in sleep patterns for children often represent the first indicator of excessive online time.

  • Academic problems. This is where parents get tripped up easily. When their child's grades slip, the last culprit they suspect is the computer; they believe that when their son or daughter is typing away they are diligently working on their homework or writing papers. More likely, they are frittering away hours chatting instead of studying.

  • Declining interest in hobbies. After latching onto the Internet, one boy who once referred to making Eagle Scout as his main goal in life suddenly quit Scouts and called it boring. other kids lost interest in band practice, the yearbook, drama club, or sports. The Internet for them has become more than a new hobby -- it's an obsession that renders all other activities meaningless.

  • Withdrawal from friends. "My daughter is dating a young man from Germany," a mother told me. Only on the Internet, of course. Whether previously shy ... or outgoing and popular at school, a child getting caught in the Internet often refuses to go to the mall, [parties, movies, or anywhere else just to be with friends. As these children form emotional attachments to their cyberbro or cybersis, they become increasingly distant and uncommunicative with their family.

  • Disobedience and acting out. When parents first question their child about his or her Internet use, they're likely to be met with anger and hostility. "I'm just having fun!" the child screams and may throw tantrums to protest interference. If the parents set rules, the child may well break them, often with ... sneaky acts.... And if they take away the computer, the child gets more angry and belligerent; withdrawal is especially disorienting to a child less accustomed to radical mood shifts .

Young also noted that children with Attention Deficit Disorder may be particularly susceptible to Internet addiction and may be able to spend much more time on the Internet, than reading a book.

[1] Geisel, T.S., Oh the Places You'll Go! 1990. Random House: Net York. The author of this Guide read this section in testimony before the COPA Commission and the NRC Committee. .
[3] Based on theories of Nisan and Bandura. Nisan, M. (1991) Limited acceptable morality. In Kurtines, W. M. & Gewirtz, J. L., Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development, Vol III. Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognition theory of moral thought and action. In Kurtines, W. M. & Gewirtz, J. L. , Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development, Vol I.
[4] District administrators should also consider the possibility of problems with Internet addiction with respect to decline in a staff member's performance.
[5] Young, K. S. , Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction and a Winning Strategy for Recovery, 1998. John Wiley & Sons: New York. More information on Young's work is available online at:
[6] Id. at 61.
[7] Id. at 63.
[8] Id. at 152-3.

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