Internet Content: The Mother of Teachable Moments
It is only natural for adults to want to keep information that they consider harmful from the eyes and minds of youngsters. The current panic that school access to the Internet has precipitated, however, is worthy of serious reflection. There are some tough questions that we should be asking ourselves!
The extreme ease with which vast quantities of objectionable material can be accessed by students through the World Wide Web is unprecedented. Since this danger was brought about by technology, it is only reasonable for us to look to technology for a quick fix, magic bullet solution. Filtering, however, which at first blush appears be the ideal solution carries a moral price tag of its own. Ultimately, the issue is, do we believe we have the ability to shape the character of the upcoming generation to something we can be comfortable with? Are we wise enough to make the kind of investment in time, resources, and risk that such an outcome would demand? And, most importantly, do we trust in our youngsters to respond to such demands for personal growth?
The business sector is betting that the answer to those questions is an emphatic NO! Consequently, a sizable new industry to provide “safe” Web access to youngsters is proliferating. Not only are a vast array of Internet filter software solutions competing with one another for marketshare, but new varieties of digital catchers in the rye are appearing. Increasingly, screened portal sites, “safe” for-pay password protected environments, supervised email and chat services, and the like are sprouting like virtual mushrooms to capture the dollars of teachers and parents desperate to allow kids to do what we all agree is rapidly becoming a necessity, experiencing the value of on-line learning without exposure to the burgeoning minefield of nasties that comes with the territory. As we invest our trust and money in these offerings shouldn’t we be investing as well in the character of the youngsters we hope to protect with them?
What is not appearing on the horizon is a curriculum, technology supported or other, that turns this gigantic cyber-lemon into virtual lemonade. I am referring to the need for directly facing this devil by teaching youngsters about objectionable information and how to cope with it. In a sense, we are so panicked by the loss of so much control, and the profound negative consequences of this, that we are overlooking what must be the mother of teachable moments in character education. Surely, by now it has registered that prohibiting youngsters access to anything merely whets their appetite for it. In some quarters Intenet filtering acts like MSG sprinkled on off-limits web sites. It follows, of course, those stories of youngsters rising to the challenge of the thrown-down gauntlet of Internet filters by ingeniously defeating them to the consternation and embarrassment of their teachers.
Are we not abdicating our responsibility as educators by looking for an antiseptic approach, one that will allow us to avoid rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty? Are we not overreacting to the power of the Internet by seeking absolute control over the kind of information it brings into our classrooms and homes?
While the ease, speed, and anonymity with which information can be accessed by the Web is unprecedented, the kinds of items, at least in regard to their content, not their form, that can be accessed, are not different than what has always been available.
Information on constructing bombs, for instance, is ubiquitously available to youngsters at public libraries, a place we encourage them to frequent. Bomb formulas acquired online however, assume a sinister nature that their hard copy cousins can’t compete with. Why is this? Is it not simply that we are dealing with a new and unfamiliar phenomenon? Hate literature, pornography, consumerism boosting advertising, tracts expounding extreme politics and the rest of the kinds of information that populate the Internet’s chamber of horrors are all available to be encountered by youngsters out there in the real world, not just online.
Rather than enlist the aid of an automated brick wall that will prevent youngsters from contact with what we adults also encounter, but manage to slough off with nothing more than distaste, should we not be giving youngsters a set of personal character tools with which to filter out objectionable items themselves? What is needed are a series of lessons in analysis of the sorts of things that should not be accessed or rejected should they be encountered accidentally, something which becomes increasingly probable no matter how thoroughly we circle the wagons and build a cyber moat to protect them. There is nothing new that would be needed in order to arm youngsters against the onslaught of online mind polluters. Critical thinking, RESPONSIBILITY, and coping mechanisms are the kinds of things that youngsters are already steeled with in order to successfully navigate a world populated by child molesters, drug dealers, and bullies of all kinds. True, it is a different world the new generation is coming up in, but while there are pitfalls out there, there presence is balanced with that of wonders and wholesome pleasures in ever increasing numbers, too.
With this teachable moment staring us in the face, are we up to the challenge of taking advantage of it while we handle the equally pressing, if more prosaic, responsibility of protecting our young charges. By all means, YES, let’s filter, but let’s rise to the occasion, as well, of ensuring that youngsters understand this new, Internet shaped, world they are coming of age in. In the end it will do us little good to protect our youngsters while disempowering them. It is essential to the education of all who grow and successfully transition to the real world of adults, that they learn to cope with what they surely will find there. Filtering, while offering safety and security, is only part of our responsibility to those who are growing up digital.
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