The Ultimate Guide to Student Internet Safety at School: Part 1
Education on internet safety, clear policies, content filters and network visibility will keep your students – and your campus network – safe.
Photo/Illustration: Ron Rennells
Part one of this two-part series explores how to protect students from cyberbullying, Internet predators and identity theft by teaching media literacy and implementing Internet use policies on your campus. View part 2 here.
Students can be the victims — or perpetrators — of cyberbullying, oversharing, identity theft and more while using the Internet. If such activity happens on campus, or affects the school environment, school administrators must be ready to intervene.
Internet education and comprehensive policies will help your students navigate the Internet appropriately. In addition, safeguards such as network solutions and content filters will allow your school to comply with federal or state regulations, as well as prevent unwanted online activity.
Students Don’t Separate Online and Offline Lives
Many of today’s students don’t remember a time when the Internet was not readily available to them. Social networking, E-mail, instant messaging and search engines have become an integral part of doing homework and interacting with classmates.
However, this often helpful and seemingly innocuous technology can be dangerous to students who do not know how to practice safe surfing and “netiquette” online etiquette.
“In many cases, students have never really gotten training on how to conduct their lives online,” says Erin Weed, CEO and Founder of Girls Fight Back! “[The Internet] is just kind of an extension of their life offline, so it is important to teach them about forming boundaries between the two.”
Help Students Think Critically About Internet Safety
Weed founded Girls Fight Back! in 2001 after her best friend was murdered on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. The organization has since reached out to almost a million women on topics such as self-defense, sexual assault prevention and Internet safety.
Weed says Girls Fight Back! uses a lot of humor in its safety presentations, as students are more likely to absorb the important information if they enjoy the way it is delivered.
“We try to help young people come to their own conclusions about what is a reasonable boundary,” she explains. When it comes to posting online, she adds, “I’m not saying there is a right or wrong, but I am saying students should stop and make a conscious decision.”
Bobbie Eisenstock, Ph.D., a media education consultant, says that teaching media literacy is integral to keeping students safe online.
“Simply put, media literacy is the ability to think critically about what we see, hear, read and interact with in the digital media culture,” Eisenstock explains. “Media literate strategies can help students gain the competencies and social skills they need to navigate the Internet safely, responsibly and ethically.”
Once students understand what constitutes appropriate Internet use, they are less likely to misuse or abuse the technology.
“Being media literate is really an essential life skill for the digital generation,” Eisenstock adds.
‘You Are What You Post Online’
Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have created endless opportunities for students to overshare personal information and photos with large groups of people â”€ including some they may not know personally.
“Whatever you post online or someone tags in your name [on Facebook] becomes part of your virtual identity,” Eisenstock says. “Make sure to opt-in to privacy settings to reduce your online visibility, but remember that nothing is really ‘private’ in cyberspace, and there are no take-backs. What you share at age 15 is probably not how you want to represent yourself at age 30.”
Eisenstock says it is important for students to realize that the Internet is a public space â”€ despite the feeling of anonymity it gives users.
“Whatever you post can be searched, copied, pasted, altered, forwarded and viewed by not only ‘friends’ but people you may not realize can see it â”€ friends of friends and family members, acquaintances and strangers, teachers and school administrators, college admissions and future employers, law enforcement and government officials,” she explains.
‘Sexting’ Photos Can Spread Online
Girls Fight Back! also emphasizes the danger of posting too much information online.
“We try to present that the ideas that maybe you shouldn’t put all sorts of crazy stuff out there, but in a way where [students] come to the conclusion themselves â”€ as opposed to us saying, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Weed explains.
The Internet, Weed says, is just another tool of communication. However, increasingly, students have been using communication technology â”€ such as cellphones â”€ to spread inappropriate images of themselves or classmates (a practice called “sexting”).
According to a 2009 study conducted by MTV and the Associated Press, 30 percent of 14- to 24-year-olds had either sent or received nude photos on their cell phones or online.
Students who spread inappropriate images can be held legally responsible. It’s illegal under both federal and state child-porn laws to create explicit images of a minor; in addition, it is illegal to possess and distribute them. Although such laws were created to protect minors from adults, minors can also be held responsible â”€ including the minor who is in the photo.
Cyberbullying Victims Don’t Seek Help
A 2010 study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 20 percent of all 10- to 18-year-olds surveyed from 37 different schools in the United States had been the victims of cyberbullying. Yet many victims do not seek help.
“Telling an adult about any electronic aggression is one of the most important steps to take, but unfortunately, only one in 10 kids get help from a parent or other adult,” Eisenstock says. Students who are victims of cyberbullying fear retaliation from the bully or the loss of their Internet privileges.
“Parents need to reassure kids who are victims that they will not be punished by having their tech devices taken away. This is a teachable moment for parents to promote digital citizenship and to reinforce the values that they want their kids to use when they go online,” Eisenstock continues. “In fact, using any media as reward and punishment is not really an effective way to help kids learn to use media wisely.”
Victims Should Document Online Abuse
“I use a strategy called ‘detach and watch’,” Weed says. “I completely disengage [from the bullying], but I still monitor it because when people are saying crazy stuff, you don’t know if that’s going to escalate to offline violence.”
Cyberbullying victims should document the abuse â”€ screenshots will be helpful in the event the bully deletes his or her comments â”€ and report it to their Internet Service Provider or Web moderator.
School Districts Responsible For Enforcement
Many states have enacted laws to address cyberharassment, cyberbullying or cyberstalking; recent legislation in particular has made school districts the policy enforcers in these types of crimes.
Because of this, cyberbullying has been included in most schools’ anti-bullying policies. The majority of states have laws that establish sanctions for cyberbullying on school property, in buses and at official school functions.
However, it is important to note that some states have extended district enforcement to cyberbullying that occurs off-campus, because it can disrupt the learning environment. State laws that have placed off-campus cyberbullying under the authority of districts call for school interventions, suspension or expulsion. Bullies can also be charged with misdemeanors or felonies.
Some state cyberbullying laws also promote Internet safety education.
Eisenstock says districts should consider social norming as an intervention for cyberbullying. “Media reports give the impression that ‘everybody’s doing it’ â”€ which tends to normalize bullying behaviors. In reality, this isn’t true. But if students believe that most kids their age cyberbully, then they are more inclined to engage in some form of bullying behavior,” she explains.
Identity Theft Is a Threat to Students
Students who overshare on the Internet also run the risk of having their identities stolen. Personal information from Twitter and Facebook can be used by cyber criminals if it is not protected properly.
Criminals “can harness the information they need to steal your identity from [social media sites],” according to Denis Kelly, an expert on identity theft prevention and chairman of the Identity Ambassador Commission.
“The main defense is, avoid posting personal information,” Kelly adds. “Don’t accept friend requests from people that you don’t know personally. When you accept a friend on Facebook, it gives them more access to information than the general public has. If you don’t know somebody personally, why would you trust them with your personal information?”
Eisenstock agrees: “My best advice is basic: Keep your personal information private. That means don’t share full name, age, address, telephone or cell number, school name, password information [or] photos with identifying information such as school team or home residence,” she says.
Students can also protect this information by regularly monitoring their security settings.
“A lot of people don’t realize there are security settings on their Facebook account,” Kelly explains. “You want to verify that your security settings are adequate.”
This is different for Twitter users, whose posts can be “followed” by other users â”€ or the general public â”€ without their consent (on Facebook, users receive friend requests, which can be denied). On Twitter, students must either block individual users or set their entire profile to private.
Online Friends Shouldn’t Find You Offline
Kelly also points out that Facebook status updates or tweets about a user’s location can let other users know how to find them. It can lead to home invasions.
“In cases where there is cyberstalking, robberies can happen because people know that you’re not home,” he says. “If there’s a post on your Facebook account that says you’re at a restaurant, potential criminals know you won’t be at your house.”
Facebook also includes a functionality called “Facebook Places,” which allows users to “check in” at locations using the GPS on their mobile phones. The security default for the feature is automatically set so that the information is shared with friends only; however, if a student is in the habit of accepting friend requests from people they don’t know, the feature could open them up to potentially dangerous situations.
In her book, Weed writes: “According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, the definition of cyberstalking is threatening behavior or unwanted advances directed at another using the Internet and other forms of online and computer communications. Research has found that 80 percent of cyberstalking victims are female and most offenders are male. Clearly this is an issue that not only affects college girls today but will most likely increase in severity as technology advances.”
Social networking sites have made it easier to locate people using data found online. “The whole idea is you don’t want people who are online to find you offline,” Weed says.
However, Eisenstock points out that Internet predators are not the most pressing threat to students: “The two most spotlighted risks are cyberbullying and predators. Of the two, studies indicate that young people are much more likely to encounter a bully than a predator online.”
What to Do if You Are Being Cyberbullied
Students who are cyberbullied — according to Bobbie Eisenstock, a media education consultant — should not respond directly to the harassment. Instead, they should:
- Block communication with the bully
- Document the attacks (take screenshots of abusive comments, print out copies of E-mails)
- If the bullying persists, it should be reported to the Internet Service Provider or Web moderator
- The student should also alert a parent, teacher or school official