Is the internet too dangerous for children?

46 percent of adults who don't have broadband access believe the internet is too dangerous for children.

The federal government’s plan to provide fast internet connections to all Americans will have to include some basic instruction in Web 101, a new survey reveals. According to the survey, nearly half of adults who don’t subscribe to broadband say the internet is too dangerous for children—a finding that suggests policy makers and educators face a steep challenge in convincing much of the public of the benefits of broadband access.

The Federal Communications Commission’s first-ever survey on internet usage and attitudes concludes that those who aren’t connected today need to be taught how to navigate the web, find online information that is valuable to them, and avoid hazards such as internet scams.

The study, released Feb. 23, comes less than a month before the FCC is due to hand Congress policy recommendations on how to make affordable, high-speed internet access a reality for everyone. The findings are certain to shape the policy recommendations in that plan, which was mandated by last year’s stimulus bill.

The Obama administration has identified universal broadband as critical to driving economic development, producing jobs, and expanding the reach of cutting-edge medicine and educational opportunities.

Part of the FCC’s broadband plan will focus on building networks in parts of the country that lack high-speed access—particularly rural America. Among other things, the plan will propose using the fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities to pay for internet connections and finding more airwaves for wireless broadband services. (A summary of the plan’s key educational goals can be found here.)

But the findings from the FCC’s survey reveal that the plan also must focus on teaching people how to use the internet and convincing them that it’s safe and relevant to their lives, said John Horrigan, consumer research director for the FCC and author of the survey.

The survey found that 35 percent of Americans do not use broadband at home, including 22 percent of adults who do not use the internet at all. (That compares pretty closely with separate findings from the Commerce Department suggesting that nearly 40 percent of Americans don’t have broadband service.)

Of that 35 percent, 36 percent say it is too expensive, while 19 percent do not see the internet as relevant to their lives. Another 22 percent lack what the FCC calls “digital literacy” skills. They fall into a category that includes people who are not comfortable with computers or who are scared of “bad things” on the internet.

Among people who do not use broadband, 65 percent say there is too much pornography and offensive material on the internet, 57 percent say it is too easy for personal information to be stolen online, and 46 percent believe the internet is too dangerous for children.

The FCC’s findings were based on telephone surveys of more than 5,000 adult Americans conducted in October and November of last year. The survey found that 78 percent of American adults use the internet, including 6 percent who don’t have a connection at home but who get access at work or somewhere else, and 74 percent have internet access at home, including 6 percent who use a dial-up connection.