More than 80 percent of school-age children receive lewd, inappropriate, or potentially dangerous “spam”—or unsolicited commercial eMail—on a daily basis, according to a recent survey by internet security firm Symantec Corp. The survey underscores the need for parents, educators, and policy makers to find new ways to combat spam, which is a growing problem for all internet users.

The report, which polled 1,000 children between the ages of seven and 18, found America’s youth are constantly being bombarded with electronic solicitations recruiting them for everything from bogus online sweepstakes and shady investment ventures to discounted Viagra and hardcore pornography.

What’s even more alarming is that at least half of the children surveyed said they’ve grown uneasy toward the sudden and increasingly commonplace appearance of spam in their in-boxes—personal space generally reserved for correspondence with friends, teachers, and trusted family members.

According to the survey, one child out of every five opens and reads the unsolicited messages, especially if the subject line is appealing. For many kids, though, the electronic barrage of spam amounts to a rollercoaster ride of confusing and complex emotions. Feelings children reported when sifting through spam included everything from annoyance and discomfort to curiosity and disgust, the study found.

“As with any eMail user, kids are just as susceptible as adults to being bombarded by spam advertising inappropriate products and services, such as Viagra and pornographic materials,” said Steve Cullen, senior vice president of consumer and client product delivery at Symantec. “Parents need to educate their children about the dangers of spam and how they can avoid being exposed to offensive content or becoming innocent victims of online fraud.”

Part of the problem, however, is that parents often are kept in the dark about their children’s run-ins with spam. The survey found that 38 percent of children who have misgivings about the spam they receive do not tell their parents. Neither do many children ask for permission before disclosing personally identifiable information online, including eMail addresses, the report showed. In fact, nearly half of all children surveyed (46 percent) said they do not check with their parents first.

Of course, communication is a two-way street. One in three children admitted they were uncertain as to whether spam is a good or a bad thing, and 22 percent of kids said their parents never attempted to broach the topic with them before, which begs the question of whether parents and other role models—including educators—should be doing more to ensure the online safety of children.

According to Parry Aftab, an internet privacy lawyer who heads up the nonprofit group Wired Safety, spam is as much a threat to children in school as it is for them from home.

“Kids are spammed in school the same way they are spammed anywhere else,” she said. “It’s a huge problem, and it’s really hard to do anything about.”

Although a number of school districts have employed spam filters to thwart the efforts of online solicitors, many of the messages still get through, Aftab said.

She warned that filtering technologies are not a panacea when it comes to keeping kids safe from spam. Educators need to wedge spam-related lessons into existing curricula, she said, and they should take advantage of materials provided by such online safety organizations as her own Wired Safety and the national Stay Safe Online campaign that specifically address the problem of spam.

“We try to teach kids in our program that they don’t have to read every eMail that comes to them,” Aftab said. “Spam is probably the single biggest problem we face on the internet today.”

For most students, the dangers associated with spam increase as the school year ends, Symantec found. Unlike school computers, where expensive filtering solutions generally exist to regulate online web surfing and eMail correspondence, most of the computers students use from home during the summer are not equipped with the same security measures.

Students also tend to use computers more when they are at home, the study found. Forty-four percent of respondents estimated they spend at least two hours a day online during the summer vacation, compared with 23 percent who said they spend the same amount of time online during the school year.

Whether the majority of problems arise at school or in the home, parents and educators soon could get help from the federal government when it comes to curbing the problem of spam in their children’s eMail in-boxes.

Liberal Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has formed an unlikely alliance with the ultraconservative Christian Coalition to support a bill he introduced June 11, which would impose criminal and civil penalties on spam peddlers.

Called the Stop Pornography and Abusive Marketing (SPAM) Act, the bill—S. 1231—would establish costly fines for spamming activity, mandate jail time for repeat offenders, and create a “Do-Not-Spam” list of eMail addresses similar to the Federal Trade Commission’s new “Do-Not-Call” registry that aims to cut down on unwanted telemarketing calls.

The bill would make it a crime to harvest eMail addresses, eliminating the most common technique spammers use to compile lengthy address lists. It also would require commercial eMail to be labeled with “ADV” to streamline filtering and help separate spam from personal or business-related messages, thus clamping down on deceptive subject-line information the FTC estimates is present in 66 percent of all junk eMail, Schumer’s office said.

“My bill fights spam eMail on two fronts—it gives parents the ability to regulate the eMail sent to their kids and gives law enforcement the ability to go after those spammers that send this unwanted material out,” Schumer said.

The senator’s bill, which has yet to emerge from committee, is the latest salvo in a bid by Washington lawmakers and other federal agencies to get tough on spam.

At least three other anti-spam bills have been introduced in Congress so far this year. In May, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson proposed legislation that would make spammers subject to punishment under the civil Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The bill, originally meant to curb activities in organized crime, enables authorities to seize assets of businesses that obtain money using tactics of intimidation and deception.

In April, Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act, which would impose criminal penalties upon senders of bulk eMail who attempt to conceal their true identities.

In the House, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would permit the FTC to collect fines and pay bounties on behalf of citizens who report illegal spamming to federal authorities.

The Bush administration also is waging a war of its own against spam. In April, the FTC invited policy makers and business leaders to a national forum to explore ways to combat the problem (“Feds, firms increase efforts to can ‘spam,'” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4406), and last month, FTC officials issued a warning to school systems and other organizations asking them to close technological loopholes that spammers have exploited to launch their attacks (“FTC: Open servers make schools unwary accomplices to spam,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4462).

Several states, too, are getting into the act. According to the Associated Press, 29 states already have enacted anti-spam laws. In July, Virginia will become the first state to allow prosecutors to bear down on spammers with criminal charges.

As federal agencies and state governments continue searching for ways to tackle the burgeoning problem of spam, Symantec offers five suggestions to keep America’s youth safe from its purveyors:

  • Encourage parents to increase communication with their children regarding the dangers of spam.
  • Explain the value and security of personally identifiable information to children who go online.
  • Establish a level of trust with kids so they can talk about spam but do not feel as if they are constantly being watched over.
  • Know the ways kids are getting online. Just because a home computer is secure doesn’t mean kids aren’t getting online elsewhere.
  • Review eMail together.

Links:

Symantec Corp.
http://www.symantec.com

Wired Safety
http://www.wiredsafety.org

Stay Safe Online
http://www.staysafeonline.info