Net-Wise Teens: Safety, Ethics, and Innovation
By Amy Poftak
As educators return to class this fall, so will a generation of middle and high school
students more digitally sophisticated than ever before. Where are kids logging on, and
what can we do to ensure responsible online behavior while still harnessing their passion
for the Internet?
Among the favorite Web
sites of these students at
Prospect Sierra Middle
School--who report they
spend much more time
online at home than at
Candystand, Angelfire, X-
files.com, and Neopets.
Sitting at a table in the computer lab at the Prospect Sierra Middle School in El Cerrito,
Calif., munching a sandwich from a brown-bag lunch, Emily, a seventh-grader, is filling
me in on Neopets, a site where she goes to create virtual pets and mingle with other pet
owners in the fictional land of Neotopia. Her classmate Mariko, who has a Web site of
her own, seems unimpressed. "It's basically a walking advertisement," she offers wryly.
The rest of the students at the table share their Internet horror stories. "I went to a chat
room just to check it out, and now I get thirty pieces of junk mail a day," says Matt, a
sixth-grader who spends about half an hour online daily. Alyse, an eighth-grader with
eight Instant Messenger screen names, puts it differently: "I hate the Internet. It's a mess,"
she says, recounting how she unintentionally found herself at a neo-Nazi site while trying
to gather information on the Holocaust. All the kids at the table agreed that chain letters
and Internet hoaxes are "creepy."
Welcome to the world of teens online, a digital generation that's comfortable tossing
around terms like spam and broadband, casually visiting chat rooms (although most
dismiss them as stupid), or disabling a cookie that the latest digital music site has
surreptitiously placed on their hard drive. This level of tech sophistication is not just a
phenomenon among upper-middle-class kids like those I talked to at Prospect Sierra.
The UCLA Internet Project, an ongoing study of the impact of the Internet, provided
T&L with data on how wired kids, ages 12 to 17, responded to their most recent
A growing number of reports such as the Pew Internet &
American Life Project and UCLA's "Surveying the Digital
Future", as well as a broad sampling of preteens and teens I
spoke with, support this conclusion. The Internet has become
their place-to try on new identities, to gather information for
play and school, to gossip with friends. And while traditional
activities such as sports, TV, and "hanging around" show no
signs of disappearing, the Internet as a presence in their lives
still represents a titanic change from all that's gone before.
The new opportunities for knowledge and communication
offered by the Internet are undeniably exciting, but with them
come a raft of concerns for adults. On the one hand, kids are
discovering new avenues for finding information, for
socializing, for experimenting with different personas, and
for gaining important technology skills they'll need for their
futures. At the same time, we've all heard the stories of
inappropriate and sometimes even dangerous experiences the
Net potentially opens up for children: pornography, hacking,
copyright infringement, and online bullying, to name a few.
Regardless, as the Internet, with all of its possibilities and contradictions, increasingly
becomes a regular part of preteens' and teens' daily routines and communication patterns,
it seems naive and shortsighted for educators to separate this technology from the way
students learn and teachers teach. The challenge lies in how to strike a balance between
ensuring students' safe and responsible behavior, and allowing them the freedom to
explore new places and learn in creative, innovative ways.
Clicking with Kids
Before considering how schools can address the relevant Internet issues, it's important to
look at the facts. What are students doing online, and how have their behaviors evolved
over time? What role are parents and schools playing? The kids I spoke with gave me
answers that corroborated much of what the research is saying about where they're going
on the Net and why. Among the themes that emerged are the following.
Editor in the Field
Last spring executive editor Amy Poftak spent four days studying the social,
political, and economic impact of the Internet as part of a CASE media fellowship at
UCLA. Along with 13 other journalists selected for the program, she met with
researchers from the UCLA Internet Project and heard from academic and industry
experts on topics ranging from online privacy to globalization. Much of what she
learned over the course of the fellowship informs this report. -Susan McLester
The majority of kids are wired. It's not really news that millions of kids have access to
the Internet today. Thanks to federal funding initiatives like the E-rate, almost all public
schools are wired. (The Department of Education reports 98 percent; education research
firm Market Data Retrieval says 92 percent.) The 2000 Census found that two-thirds of
homes with a child aged 6 to 17 have a computer, with 53 percent of these homes
connecting to the Internet. While home access has increased overall, low-income kids
still lag behind. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 41 percent
of eighth-graders in free and reduced-price lunch programs have home Internet access,
compared to 72 percent of their financially better-off peers.
Wired kids are information hunters and gatherers. Talk to a group of Internet-
connected kids, and you'll find them using the Web in sophisticated ways to improve
their "offline" lives. Tyler, a high school junior, has collected thousands of music files
using peer-to-peer file sharing sites such as BearShare and Morpheus. Henry, an eighth-
grader, logs on to vendor sites to compare prices for guitar equipment. His classmate
Alyse checks out book descriptions on Amazon before heading to the local library, so she
knows what she wants when she gets there.
Kids are also using the Internet in growing numbers to find answers to questions they
might feel uncomfortable asking in person. A survey conducted by the Kaiser Family
Foundation found that over two-thirds of teens and young adults have searched the
Internet for health information, with sexual health being the most sought-after topic. Chat
rooms and message boards are other outlets for kids grappling with sensitive issues. For
example, Scarleteen, owned by adult e-zine Scarlet Letters and edited by former
educators, provides an anonymous forum for teens to ask everything they want to know
about sex and sexuality.
What other kinds of research are kids doing on the
Internet? According to the Pew Internet & American
Life Project, 71 percent of Internet-connected
students choose the Web over a visit to the library to
complete school projects. A separate study
commissioned by AOL backs this up, finding that
over 50 percent of teens consult the Web for help
Wired kids are communicators. As any educator or
parent could probably predict, the number one way
kids use the Internet is for communication. According
to the Pew Project, three-quarters of wired teens are
zapping instant messages to one another. The study
also found that 56 percent of teens online have more
than one e-mail address or instant messaging screen
name. In particular, girls are much more likely than
boys to assume different roles online. But even when
they're being themselves, many students I talked with
believe they communicate in a different way online
than they do face to face. Joe, a middle school student
in suburban New Jersey, told me he found it freeing. "You can be less reserved online,
and less worried about someone's response. It's easier to say what you're thinking."
Research based on 193
respondents, ages 12-17, from
survey of over 2,000 households.
To be sure, there's a flip side to the liberating facelessness of the Internet. There are the
extreme cases of kids using its anonymity to blend into the adult world: the 14-year-old
financial whiz from New Jersey who made hundreds of thousands in online trading
before being caught, and the 15-year-old prodigy who, using the innocuous screen name
"LawGuy1975," managed to become the top-requested legal expert at Askme.com. More
often than not, though, parents and teachers worry about the Internet facilitating risky
contact for kids, whether it's an adult looking to establish a relationship with a minor or
classmates "flaming" each other with online insults. Almost 60 percent of teens surveyed
by the Pew project said they have been contacted by a stranger online.
"When you're IM-ing, grammar goes out the
window," says Emily, a middle school student
Wired kids lack information literacy skills. Youth are tapping into vast resources on
the Web, but how much consideration do they give to the legitimacy of sites they use? Is
the information accurate? Can the source be trusted? The news on this front is not
entirely bad: UCLA researchers found that 41 percent of Internet users ages 12-17 think
"about half" of what they find on the Internet is reliable and accurate. On the other hand,
51 percent still believe that "most or all" the information on the Web can be trusted to be
Parents aren't watching their wired kids as much as you'd think. "My father understands
I'm smarter than him when it comes to computers, and there's not much he can do to stop
me. He'd be more concerned if I did drugs," a high school junior from New Hampshire
tells me, adding that adults don't realize the extent to which kids are downloading illegal
software. Most parents claim they keep an eye on where their children are going online,
but more than half of kids ages 12-15 admit-not surprisingly, of course-they don't tell
their parents everything they do on the Internet, according to the UCLA Internet Project.
More telling, perhaps, is the number of wired kids-almost 30 percent, according to the
Pew project-who have Internet-connected computers in a private space in their home,
usually their bedrooms. Like phones, televisions, and CD players, computers are
becoming just another unsupervised entertainment option.
Implications for Schools
To be sure, more and more kids in the middle and high school
years are sophisticated computer users-good news for schools
looking to incorporate Internet technology into the curriculum.
Unlike their elementary counterparts, however, kids in this age
range are more resistant to adult supervision (certainly at home),
and more apt to push the legal and ethical limits of what they
can do online. They're also not necessarily discerning when it
comes to evaluating the information they find. What follows are
some practical steps educators can take to address all of these Caryn Gregg,
issues, and in the process, keep up with their students' natural technology coordinator
bent for the Internet. at the Prospect Sierra
Middle School in El
Reexamine Your AUP Cerrito, Calif., hasn't
By now, your school or district has an acceptable use policy seen major abuse of the
addressing thorny issues such as student e-mail ethics, school's AUP. In one
plagiarism, and inappropriate Web surfing. Most likely incident, however, two
informing your AUP is the Children's Internet Protection Act, students caught
which requires schools to adopt filters and an "Internet Safety changing their desktop
Policy" in exchange for E-rate and Title III technology funding settings were assigned
(for more information on CIPA and current challenges to this the task of cleaning out
legislation, see Trend Watch). sounds and other files
that didn't belong on
CIPA requirements aside, how should schools be refining their the school's computers.
acceptable use policies to keep up with what we know about student Internet use? Here
are some suggestions from several experienced technology coordinators I talked to.
Don't ban communication outright. Given that kids are flocking in droves to e-mail and
instant messaging, schools should continue to set clear guidelines about acceptable use of
these tools-but be careful about eliminating them altogether. At Prospect Sierra, for
example, students can get permission to access their Hotmail and Yahoo accounts to grab
a project file or log onto their New York Times accounts to do independent research.
Other schools find that allowing e-mail at designated times works well. Another
alternative to banning e-mail is to use products that limit kids' access to outside e-mail
and chat, such as Gaggle and FirstClass.
Increase Student Productivity: Check Your Network
AUPs and filtering help to reduce negative Internet activity at school, but fine-tuning
your network can also go a long way. Tech director Jerry Crystal offers the
Set students' network profiles so they can save work only to the school server
as opposed to a local hard drive. This makes it easier to keep track of all
student work and ensure that it's school related.
Put the kibosh on gaming and music downloads by setting network profiles
to prohibit computers from downloading executable files or running CD-
Place limits on network access-from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., for instance-to
eliminate the possibility of students connecting after school hours.
Be inclusive. In the four or five years since most schools created their first AUP, there
has been an explosion of low-cost handheld gadgets that can communicate with each
other and outside networks. As a result, the potential for kids to use their PDA or cell
phone to beam notes to each other, or gain access to the Internet, is a very real possibility.
In your AUP, expand your definition of "computer" to include handheld devices, cell
phones, and calculators.
Address the use of outside equipment. You've probably heard the story of the teenager
who took his brand-new laptop to the school parking lot at night and discovered he was
able to gain access to the school's wireless network. Instances like this may seem far-
fetched, but students toting their personal laptops to school and plugging into the
network-whether wired or wireless-are not. If you haven't already, add a clause to your
AUP addressing the use of unauthorized equipment.
Be positive. Jerry Crystal, former director of technology
for Bloomfield Public Schools in Bloomfield, Conn.,
recommends writing an AUP from a "positive versus
negative" perspective. For example, in addition to telling
kids not to copy another's work, words, or images
without permission, Bloomfield's AUP states: "Always
correctly quote your sources for reports, projects, or Web
pages. Use free clip art sites or create your own graphics
State consequences. Outline specific consequences for
violating the AUP in the AUP document. For first-time
offenders at Bloomfield, this means a call home to
parents. For second-time offenders, their parents are
contacted, their school Internet privileges are suspended
for two weeks, and they must sit through Saturday
detention. (You can find the full text of Bloomfield's
Talk about it. Use the AUP as a starting point for discussing ethical issues with your
students. What constitutes plagiarism? How can students improve note-taking methods so
they can avoid paraphrasing? Why are Napster, KaZaA, and other file-swapping services
Keep Parents Informed
Acceptable use policies, filtering tools, and refining your network settings can help curb
negative uses of the Internet at school, but what about when students go home? Certainly
parents are concerned about their children having negative experiences on the Net, but
because they aren't monitoring everything kids are doing online, or may be
uncomfortable using technology themselves, risky or inappropriate behavior may go
undetected. Making sure parents are educated about online realities and issues can help
close this gap.
Doug Fodeman, technology director at the Brookwood
School, a private elementary school in Massachusetts, says
one of the best ways to open parents' eyes about the
Internet, no matter what age their children are, is to take
them Web surfing. In workshops he gives at Brookwood
and takes on the road to other schools, he shows parents
sites popular with kids. For example, he pulls up file-
sharing site Madster and searches for "Britney Spears."
Music files come up, but so does pornography. Fodeman
also encourages parents to talk frequently with their
children about what they're doing online, and to use kids'
expertise to learn more about the Internet. "It can be as
simple as asking their child to take them to a chat room, or
asking them what LOL [instant message-speak for
"laughing out loud"] means," says Fodeman, who is
planning to write a book on the topic.
As do many educators, Caryn Gregg, technology
coordinator at Prospect Sierra, sends the AUP home to parents to make them aware of the
safety and ethical concerns surrounding the Net. "It serves to remind parents about the
issues without preaching," she says. Next year, however, her school will go further by
suggesting to parents that they "remove temptation" by taking Internet access out of the
bedroom. Doug Fodeman is even more adamant about moving student computers to a
public location. "The analogy I often use with parents is 'Would you give your kids
complete access to a bookstore that has Hustler and Playboy right next to Great
Expectations and then say I'm going to leave now for 12 hours?'"
Parents might also be interested to know that putting the computer in a central location
may have another positive side effect-getting girls more involved in technology.
Educators and parents have observed anecdotally for some time that girls prefer
computing in social settings, a fact supported by a recent report on girls and computers by
the American Association of University Women.
Web Literacy Resources
The following sites provide ideas and lesson plans for sharpening your students'
information gathering and evaluation skills.
Check out the American Association of School Librarians' nine information literacy
standards for students in addition to examples of information literacy curricula in
The staff at Bellingham Schools in Washington state has developed an eight-hour
professional development course called "Information Literacy and the Net."
The CyberSmart School Program and Macmillan McGraw-Hill offer a free curriculum
for grades K-8 that covers a range of Internet issues, including ethics, privacy, safety, and
Media Awareness Network is an award-winning Canadian site that offers K-12 teaching
ideas and handouts on a variety of media topics, including online safety and privacy.
The Media Literacy Clearinghouse has everything educators need to teach media and
information literacy: state standards, links to lesson plans, articles on Web literacy, and
Alan November's article "Teaching Kids to Be Web Literate," which appeared in T&L
last spring, includes teaching ideas for getting students to question the credibility of
Yahooligans Teachers' Guide offers tips and lesson plans for teaching Internet literacy,
plus guidance on how to evaluate Web sites and cite sources.
Teach Kids to Be Web Literate
"Kids are smarter and more worldly than any generation before; they possess a huge
amount of knowledge. That's the good news," says Jeff Cole, director of UCLA's Center
for Communication Policy and founder of the World Internet Project. "The bad news is
that, like most adults, they don't know how to assess the quality of information." Cole
thinks this is partly due to our ingrained trust of major media like The New York Times
or network news. As a result, we've never developed the skills to judge whether
information is reliable. On the Internet, says Cole, "all bets are off."
The middle school students I talked with at Prospect Sierra eemed to have a healthy
skepticism of the Internet as an educational research tool. Zai, an eighth-grader, tells me
when she's collecting information for schoolwork, she seeks out trusted education brands
like Britannica.com and university-affiliated sites. "So I can be sure what I find is right,"
he says. Another student, Mickey, says he tries to conduct school research on sites with
bibliographies that seem credible.
Granted, the Prospect Sierra kids probably fall into the top
percentage of savvier middle school computer users, but
they've also had some very grounded help from an Internet
Skills unit they're required to take in the sixth grade. The
unit's six classes cover four main areas: research skills,
Internet search strategies, evaluation, and attribution. Tech
coordinator Caryn Gregg leads students through a series of
activities using lesson plans she found on Yahooligans.
Throughout, students consult an Internet Research and
Source Citation booklet she has compiled for them, which
includes the school's citation guidelines and relevant articles
(see page 44 for a list of Web literacy resources that can help
you craft your own guide). At the end of the unit, students
are tested on a variety of issues, with questions such as
"What is meant by 'primary sources'?" and to "Name two
ways you might check if you weren't sure information you
found on the Internet was true."
Educator and industry expert David Warlick believes inaccurate and biased information
on the Internet is not the main problem when it comes to student research. Rather, it's that
teachers aren't always giving the right assignments. He suggests that instead of students
simply writing a report "about something," they should be trying to accomplish a
behavioral goal-for instance, trying to sway readers that a position is right or wrong. This
approach allows students to zero in on finding appropriate information to further their
goal, rather than simply looking for "good" or "bad" information. It also makes it less
likely that a student will copy and paste text from one place, but instead gather and
synthesize smaller bits of information they find from various sources. Warlick has
created a form teachers can use to help students evaluate information they find on the
Internet in the context of their research goals. It is available at landmark-project.com.
Take Advantage of Tools Kids Use
Fears about teenage digital troublemaking, in addition to legitimate concerns about online
safety, sometimes keeps adults from embracing the Internet as a tool for innovation and
exploration. But it's not all about dangerous and inappropriate use. Consider these four
examples of ways to approach learning with Net-savvy kids.
Discussion Springboard. Online bulletin boards offer opportunities for students,
especially those shy about public speaking, to discuss issues and problem solve beyond
the classroom, or to invite experts to join a classroom conversation from afar. (To get
started, see "Threaded Discussions:A First Step" and "Bulletin Boards: Expand and
Improve Written Communication")
Collaboration. Live chat environments can also be harnessed for student collaboration.
For example, as part of a cross-cultural project,
students at the Brookwood School instant messaged
back and forth with students in Japan and England
about "likes" and "dislikes." Later, they wrote and
posted online magazine-style articles about what they
discovered. In another joint project, science students at
Brookwood worked with peers in Pennsylvania and
Colorado to study the mammalian dive reflex. After
collecting data separately, they met in an AOL chat
room to discuss their conclusions. The chat was
projected onto a large screen so students and teacher
could see the conversation in progress.
Learning Simulations. Simulations are an area with
tremendous potential for schools, especially given kids'
natural interest in online gaming and playing with
Up-and-comers like Bike Rally from the National
Science Foundation will allow student players to test
out physics principles in different virtual reality environments, and even consult with
experts for clues in real time. Look for Bike Rally, and more programs like it, to come
Even if you're not yet using the Internet in your classroom, you can still learn a lot about
your students by simply logging on. Go to teen-oriented message boards to find out the
issues of the day. Log on to AOL and try instant messaging with a student about a
homework assignment. Indeed, the best way to learn about middle and high school-aged
kids' digital lives is not necessarily tabulating the research, but by paying close attention
Peer Networking. Peer-to-peer technology is
controversial because it makes it easy for computer users
to share pirated software, pornography, and other not-so-
educational material with each other. However, peer-to-
peer also has great potential to be used in a positive way.
Groove Networks, for instance, offers peer computing
applications that allow Windows end users to sidestep a
central server and directly collaborate with each other in Spam savvy: When
a secure, online environment. In education, this means registering at commercial
students working on a project could chat about research Web sites, eight-grader Zai
findings in real time, share multimedia presentations, uses "fake" e-mail accounts
and even co-browse the Web to examine project-related she's set up soley for the
sites together. What's more, they could also securely purpose of making sure junk
collaborate with students at other schools without being mail isn't sent to her primary
blocked by firewalls. While peer-to-peer is still finding a account.
to what they're doing. After all, in this arena, it's the students who are the experts.
place in the business world, its potential to cut server costs and free up bandwidth could
be appealing to schools as they continue to expand their technology infrastructure.
Sample Acceptable Use Policies
Need some guidance in bringing your AUP up to date? Click here to find examples
provided by educators interviewed for this article.
Brookwood School, Manchester, Mass. (pre-K-8)
Carmen Arace Middle School, Bloomfield, Conn.
Souhegan High School, Amherst, N.H.