There’s no single cure-all for protecting 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 was released as a three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia weighed 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.

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

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

She said the findings “confirm ALA’s view that protecting children online is complex, 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.

The report says that while only a part of the material on the internet is inappropriate for children, “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.

While most of the debate concerning the internet has focused on commercial sites, 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.

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

NRC’s report stressed that, beyond 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.

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.”

Related links:
NRC’s “Youth, Pornography, and the Internet”

Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse