No single cure-all exists to protect kids from pornography and other dangers on the internet, according to a report released May 2 by the National Research Council (NRC).

Instead, the 420-page report, called “Youth, Pornography, and the Internet,” recommends that individual communities blend an appropriate mix of educational, technical, and legal strategies to keep kids safe online.

“No single approach can provide a solution, since any one approach alone can be circumvented with enough effort. A balanced mix of strategies is needed,” said former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, chairman of the committee that prepared the council’s study.

The study comes as a three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia is weighing the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a law requiring public schools and libraries to install pornography-blocking software on their computers.

Children need to be taught how to make wise choices on the internet, and parents need to supervise them, the NRC report stressed.

Up to now, an area that largely has been neglected is the importance of parents, librarians, and others in equipping children to go on the internet, Thornburgh said at a press briefing announcing the report.

Parents and grandparents have an obligation to educate themselves about the internet so they can assist children and supervise them, he added.

Panel member Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago said that although internet screening filters and law enforcement can help protect children, “Overreliance on those methods will lead to a false sense of security.”

Judith F. Krug, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom, welcomed the study.

The findings “confirm ALA’s view that protecting children online is complex,” she said, “and the solutions demanded are also complex as well as varied.”

She added: “I am particularly pleased to see that filters are not touted as the only solution, nor even the best solution. If you educate children, you are developing an internal filter that is going to remain with them throughout their life.”

Congress asked the NRC to study the problem of internet pornography in 1998. The council’s report is intended to serve as a practical guide for parents, educators, librarians, information technology vendors and service providers, and public policy makers.

Although only a part of the material on the internet is inappropriate for children, the report says, “that small fraction is highly visible and controversial.”

The study estimated that, worldwide, there are about 400,000 for-pay adult internet sites, out of more than 2 billion publicly accessible web pages.

Most of the debate concerning the internet has focused on commercial sites, but there are many other sources of sexual material, including person-to-person file exchanges, unsolicited eMail, web cameras, and conversations in chat rooms.

“Solutions that focus only on commercial sources will therefore not address the entire problem,” the panel pointed out.

Because many of the sources are based in other countries, it is difficult for the United States to find ways to regulate them, the study noted.

So-called filtering programs that block access based on certain words or other information have become popular, the study said, but they inevitably make mistakes, blocking some sites they shouldn’t and letting through others that are inappropriate.

Another report, released April 22 by the Justice Department (JD), confirms that although internet filters do a good job, they are not 100-percent accurate.

JD commissioned its study to measure the effectiveness of four popular filtering software products in particular: CyberPatrol, WebSense, SmartFilter, and N2H2.

The JD study, “Updated Web Content Filtering Software Comparison,” found these four programs blocked approximately 92 percent of objectionable content correctly on average, leaving 8 percent of objectionable content accessible.

These filters also incorrectly blocked 4 percent of sites on topics such as breast feeding, women’s health issues, interracial relations, and AIDS education, the JD study said.

NRC’s report stresses that, in addition to technology solutions, children need to be taught how to make wise choices about how they behave on the internet. The panel said an analogy could be drawn with children and swimming pools.

“Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim,” Thornburgh said.

The report lists the following approaches that, when taken together, constitute a more effective strategy for protecting kids online:

  • Allowing access only to web pages that already have been checked and found acceptable.
  • Blocking inappropriate material with filtering software.
  • Warning children about explicit material and suggesting they choose something better.
  • Monitoring minors’ web activity and imposing a penalty if they are caught visiting such sites.
  • Educating children about reasons not to view explicit material and building their sense of responsibility.
  • Making it harder for minors to find explicit materials, or making access to such material more cumbersome and inconvenient.
  • Helping children cope with the exposure to inappropriate material they probably will encounter at least occasionally.

NRC is part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.

Advocates of school technology agree that education plays an important role in keeping children safe online.

“Just because you have a filter, don’t think your job is done,” said Sara Fitzgerald, director of the Consortium for School Networking’s Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse project. “You have to worry about education as well.”

She added, “Schools continue to play an important role in educating parents.” Internet safety is not an issue that many parents address with their children, so schools can help parents become tech-savvy and aware of these concerns, Fitzgerald said.

Links:

eSchool News Buyer’s Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.org/buyersguide
Company Search on “SurfControl” (Cyber Patrol) and “N2H2”

National Research Council
http://www.nas.edu

NRC’s “Youth, Pornography, and the Internet”
http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10261.html?onpi_webextra_050202

Justice Department’s “Updated Web Content Filtering Software Comparison”
http://www.etestinglabs.com/main/reports/usdoj.pdf

Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse
http://www.safewiredschools.org