by Jayne Cravens from the Virtual Volunteering Project
A common concern expressed by program managers regarding youth Internet activities is that the youth will encounter "inappropriate" behavior or information online and that the manager will be held responsible for this encounter.
Online safety for youth focuses primarily on preventing young people from encountering materials that would be illegal for them to access in printed form and on protecting them from people who might exploit them. The online safety precautions discussed in this article are easy to implement, easy to manage and have excellent success rates in protecting participants.
"Inappropriate" materials or conversations are those that parents and youth development staff would view as unsuitable for youth and even destructive. Inappropriate Internet sites are not illegal, however. The materials found on "hate" groups' Web sites are good examples of what most people would identify as inappropriate for young people. But because everyone has his or her own sense of what inappropriate means, program managers face a dilemma.
Filtering software is controversial and often ineffective. It may work temporarily for young children, but it can be bypassed by teenagers creative enough to understand the application. Such software often arbitrarily excludes Web sites. The Virtual Volunteering Project suggests that instead of relying on filtering software, parents, teachers and program leaders should become active participants in their children's or students' Internet use by regularly fostering open discussions with youth about what they are encountering on the Internet.
In addition to an online safety program to prevent or discourage youth from illegal or violent materials, consider the following steps, most of which are adapted from suggestions by the Anti-Defamation League:
Program managers should encourage parents to show an interest in their children's online activities. Encourage parents to ask their children routinely what they are seeing online, whether at school or at home, and encourage parents to visit sites with their children. Program managers should do the same with youth in their charge.
Let children know that you recognize and appreciate their individual, unique qualities. Children who feel good about themselves are less likely to be prejudiced and less likely to look for acceptance and inclusion from a group that a parent would find inappropriate. Also, notice unique and special qualities in other people and discuss them with children.
Encourage children to explore opportunities for interaction with people from diverse groups. Studies show that children playing and working together toward common goals develop positive attitudes about one another. Sports teams, bands, school clubs and community programs are examples of activities that can help counter negative feelings about people's differences. In addition to firsthand experiences, provide opportunities for children to learn about people through books, television programs, concerts or other programs that show different cultures in a positive light.
Help children recognize instances of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Make sure they know how to respond to such attitudes and behaviors when they see them in action. Television news and entertainment shows, movies, and newspapers can provide opportunities for discussion. According to recent studies, encouraging children's critical thinking ability may be the best antidote to prejudice.
Find out what sites youth themselves would define as inappropriate. Along with sites that encourage illegal behavior or allow youth to access pornographic material, discuss what else they would consider to be inappropriate. Create rules of online conduct for the youth in your program and go over those rules with them. How do the youth feel about the rules? Allowing them to explore the issues will encourage them to accept your suggestions for their Internet use.
Talk to children about how they can respond to prejudiced thinking or acts of discrimination they observe, whether online or face-to-face. Confronting peers is particularly hard for children, so they need to have a ready made response to such instances. If a peer is called a hurtful name (online or otherwise), youth should know they may simply say, "Don't call him/her that. Call him/her by his/her name." If your child or student is the victim, he or she can say, "Don't call me that. That's not fair." or "You don't like to be called bad names and neither do I." In all cases, try to help the youth to feel comfortable in pointing out unfairness.
Take appropriate action against prejudice and discrimination. For example, if other adults or participants use bigoted language around you or your children or students, do not ignore it. Children need to know that such behavior is unacceptable. A simple phrase will do: "Please don't talk that way around me or my children/students" or "That kind of joke offends me." Adults need to hold themselves to the same standards they want children in their care to follow.