Teaching kids what's right and what's wrong in cyberspace
SOME KIDS THINK IT’S OK to trash someone else in a chat room or on a “blog.” They think it’s OK to assume fake identities, to hack into databases or other computers, to cut and paste material into their papers, to forward sexist or racist jokes, and to download music.
Well, none of that is OK. Those are examples of slander, vandalism, plagiarism, theft, and racism and sexism, and they are just as real on the Internet as on the street or in school—or, sometimes, in court. Just ask Jeffrey Lee Parson, the Minnesota high school senior who was arrested last summer at age 18 for launching the “Blaster” (a.k.a. “LovSan”) worm that infected hundreds of thousands of computers.
But lessons in online ethics are sometimes hard to teach effectively. So when you have an opportunity—as I did recently with my own developing, Internet-using children—seize it.
An e-mail from America Online’s corporate headquarters must have been a mistake. Or so I thought. The message said that our family’s account had been suspended because of a breach in AOL’s terms of service: the rules of etiquette that AOL members must agree to follow. My children—Lizzie, in high school, and Jonny, in middle school—said they didn’t know anything about it.
A quick call to AOL cleared up the mystery. Jonny had posted an instant message that included a common but crude four-letter word that begins with “s.” Jonny had not been cursing at anyone; he had merely been exchanging instant-message gossip with a friend and used the word as an exclamation. The “friend” forwarded the message to AOL, apparently just to get Jonny in trouble.
The AOL staffer, assured that it wouldn’t happen again, quickly restored our service. A chastened Jonny was cyber-grounded for two weeks—no e-mail, no IMs, no surfing, no online access at all. The incident dramatically underscored the message Jonny and Lizzie had been hearing for years: “Don’t type anything online that you wouldn’t want me to read. Or your mom or teachers or friends. Or AOL. Assume anything you type can be read by anyone else. If you don’t want the whole world to read it, don’t type it.”
I was chastened, too. I appeared to be one of those parents that the experts talk about, the parents who are not teaching their children online ethics or morals. Or hadn’t been—until that day.
From the Experts
Peter Smith, director of the Cybercitizen Partnership, a nonprofit group that promotes online ethics and manners, says most parents do a good job of keeping young people safe online, protecting them from swindlers who are running scams and from perverts who want to meet them in person. But, Smith writes in a white paper on the organization’s Web site, protecting their children is not a parent’s only role. Controlling them is, too. “Kids think they are anonymous online,” Smith writes. “They never see either the victim or the consequences of their actions.” For example, virtually every young person knows it’s wrong to sneak into someone else’s house and prowl around. “Yet when the issue of entering someone else’s computer is brought up,” Smith adds in our e-mail interview, “most don’t feel that is inappropriate—and illegal—behavior.”
Smith and other experts agree that parents need to educate themselves so that they can educate their youngsters. (See the Web sites listed in “Cyber House Rules,” page 92, for suggestions for both parents and teachers.) After all, this is still new technology, and the rules are evolving. Even for parents who have been using computers at home and at work for decades, it’s still a challenge to keep up with all the new ways that children are using computers and the Internet. Most parents regard the Internet as a tool; kids see it as a magic carpet. For parents who are less sophisticated than their offspring about computers and the online world—and that’s the majority—it’s difficult to imagine any big ethical or moral dilemmas when the children are sitting quietly by themselves in front of screens in their bedrooms. After all, they’re not out smoking or drinking or joining gangs.
Howard Newburger, a Rye, New York, psychologist, says too many parents don’t know what their children are doing online. “The Internet is viewed as a benign babysitter,” he says. By keeping computers in “public” areas of the home, instead of behind closed bedroom doors, parents can literally look over their children’s shoulders and find excuses to engage them in what Newburger calls “the potential richness of content and opportunities for discussion and accelerated teaching.”
The sad poster child for electronic ignorance is Blair Hornstine, who was graduated at the top of her class at Moorestown (New Jersey) High School last spring. She applied to Harvard University and was admitted. Then the university reportedly learned that she had borrowed material verbatim from Web sites for essays she wrote for the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Courier-Post. According to that newspaper, in a story that subsequently received national attention, Hornstine tried to explain away the plagiarism: “I, like most every teenager who has use of a computer, cut and pasted my ideas together. I erroneously thought the way I had submitted the articles was appropriate.” No matter. Harvard withdrew her admission.
It doesn’t take the skills of an investigative reporter to catch a teen in the act of bad online behavior. Most Web browsers make it easy to see if someone in the household has been visiting sites that show pornography, deny the Holocaust or offer bomb-making instructions. If you use Internet Explorer, for example, click on the “History” icon, or on “Tools,” “Internet Options” and “Temporary Internet Files.” Some savvy youths have learned to cover their tracks, but most home computers will keep a record of where they have been.
When you discover that your children are doing something out of bounds, talk with them about it. Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis who studies online ethics, suggests that parents relate examples of online misbehavior to real-world “core values.” For example:
- Hacking can be the same as theft, vandalism and invasion of privacy.
- Plagiarism and copyright violations are a form of theft.
- Assuming a fake identity online is the same as lying.
Berkowitz says his research on children at the “gateway” ages of 9 through 12 shows that parents can be just as effective in teaching them online ethics and morals as they are in teaching them about substance abuse and sex education.
Thieves and Victims
Downloading music has been one of the trickiest debates at our house. My children are among the estimated 60 million Americans who illegally download popular songs onto computers, MP3 players and compact discs. Perhaps because copyrights protect my livelihood as a writer, I am one of the apparent handful of parents who think it is ethically wrong to steal another person’s intellectual property. Now music companies are not only mounting public relations campaigns to convince kids that downloading is wrong, but are also hiring lawyers and suing downloaders.
Sometimes my kids have been the victims of the Internet’s infinite capacity for mischief. A girl at Jonny’s middle school gave herself a new screen name: Jonny’s name. She began firing off e-mails to other kids, who thought the messages—most of them not offensive but merely strange—were from Jonny. Fortunately, the girl’s parents found out. They explained to her that what she was doing, though she meant no harm, was not all that different from the masquerade of 45-year-old sleazeballs who prowl around in chat rooms pretending to be 13-year-old girls. The parents put a stop to it before the identity fib caused Jonny any real problems at school or with his friends.
Dear World Wide Web Diary
Blogs—shorthand for “Web logs”—present a raft of potential problems. Akin to personal Web pages, blogs are online journals to which you can add or delete information and pictures. They can also be interactive, meaning anyone can read and comment on them. Youngsters start blogs to help define themselves and announce their individuality. But they sometimes don’t realize what they are revealing about themselves. Even worse, they sometimes defame other people. It’s one thing to whisper about somebody between classes, and quite another to post the whisper on the Web where a billion people can read it.
Here’s an example that came up last year during one of my occasional Google searches for Jonny’s and Lizzie’s names and for their friends and their schools. I’m often surprised at what shows up in these searches, and this time I was surprised to find that Lizzie, then 16, had started a blog. It was an innocuous, mostly stream-of-consciousness diary with entries about her clothes and her moods and the boyfriend who played in a rock band. She used a swear word that 16-year-olds sometimes use among themselves to sound grown-up.
But unlike a handwritten journal, this was an online publication, available for anyone to read: friends, teachers, future employers, college admissions counselors, parents, anyone.
I didn’t tell Lizzie I’d read it, at least not directly. But I wasn’t subtle, either. I happened to mention that bloggers sometimes forget that anyone and everyone can read what they’ve posted on the Web. I suggested that lots of kids cringe when they reread what they’ve entered, and rush back and delete it. She nodded. Next time I checked, Lizzie’s blog had been zapped.
Interestingly, though, the boyfriend—now former boyfriend—still has a blog entry of his own that uses some very strong language to criticize a certain set of parents for not allowing their daughter to accompany him to a rock concert on a school night.
Like the technology itself, the ethics of the online world are evolving, and we—both parents and children—need to evolve with it. Kids sitting alone at screens in their bedrooms need to be taught that character is what you do when you think nobody is looking. They also need to be taught that everybody might be looking.
Timothy Harper is a journalist, author and editorial/publishing consultant based at www.timharper.com. He is collaborating with Dr. Howard Newburger, a New York psychotherapist, on a book about how technology is affecting personal, family and business relationships.