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Training, Not Censorship -- The Need for Cyber-Street-Smarts by Richard Seltzer

with responses from Alfred Thompson and Bob Clancy

This item, included in  Internet-on-a-Disk #20, April 1997, is part of a book entitled The Social Web. P

The well-meaning people responsible for the Computer Decency Act and the local decisions of schools and libraries seem to misunderstand the Internet and the risks and opportunities it presents. They tend to approach the Internet like they would television (one-way entertainment) or books in a library (static content). Like many Internet proponents, they think in terms of graphics on Web pages and lose sight of the fact that the Internet is an event -- that it's main strength and attraction is the interaction of people with one another.

Ratings systems for static content and software, like CyberPatrol, which, at levels selected by parents, limits children's access to a pre-screened set of Web sites, can help make parents feel more secure and can reduce the political pressure that concerned parents exert on librarians and school administrators. But I seriously doubt that that approach solves the problem, because the real risk isn't that kids would see naked pictures so much as that they would interact with people who want to harm them.

Increasingly, Web sites like, which because of their static content would pass any pre-screening, also house chat areas, which are unmonitored and wide open. Today that's text-based interaction, and you need to be able to type pretty fast to get caught up in the exhilaration and immediacy of the event. But, having seen the example of others, there's strong incentive for kids to get quite good, quite young at composing and typing. In this environment, automatic screening of particular words serves no useful purpose, because language is so supple and resilient and provides numerous alternative ways of expressing whatever you may wish to express. And as high bandwidth becomes more commonplace and software improves, many such areas will include audio and video, and will be user-friendly enough for most anyone to indulge.

You make an acquaintance in chat or newsgroups or a forum and you follow up with email or an Internet phone conversation or a CUSeeMe session or a traditional phone conversation and maybe agree to meet face-to-face. That's the way things happen on the Internet. . And the biggest risk is that the kids and their parents don't understand how it works.

Forbidding access to particular areas didn't work for God in Eden, and it's not likely to be a total solution on the Internet either. Enforced innocence based on ignorance is just a stop-gap measure. Human beings need a knowledge of good and evil and the training to apply that knowledge.

Don't just shelter children. Train and arm them so they recognize danger and know how to handle it. You teach them how to behave with other people -- including adults -- when they are alone out on the street. You should also teach them how to interact with others in the cyber-world.

But how?

First, we need sheltered, monitored areas for interaction among kids of similar age and interests. They don't stay there forever, but that's where they can learn cyber-street-smarts.

There's also a need/opportunity for training programs based around those sheltered experiences. Kids need the Internet equivalent of basic rules of safe behavior, e.g., for the youngest, "don't talk to strangers without letting people you know and trust listen in."

I could easily imagine several different levels of training, ranging from cyber-manners to cyber-safety to cyber-self-defense (cyber-karate perhaps). The child who achieves a certifiable level of competence is given a wider range of permitted activity -- always with ready access to an on-line mentor to provide help and advise.

Parents, schools and libraries could pay for such training. But entrepreneurs will have to provide it. Every problem is a business opportunity -- and this is a big one. So go for it.

PS -- The battle over freedom of speech and freedom of the press is just the beginning. The same folks who want to censor today will, when they become aware of the dangers, want to close down chat rooms and limit/restrict the ability of people to have live group interactions over the Internet. Then the battle will center on the freedom of assembly, which is just as sacred an element of the US Constitution. And once again, I believe, training, not rigid prohibition, is the best approach.

Response from Alfred Thompson

From: Alfred C Thompson II <> Date: Sat, 29 Mar 1997 18:40:41 -0500 (EST)

As a teacher I try and watch my students closely. The library computer though which we provide Internet access is physically located in my classroom/lab. Obviously this gives me the opportunity to observe many students as they use the Internet.

Guess what? They don't use the school computer to look up "dirty pictures." There are 2 reasons for this. One is that Internet time has a high demand and so anyone not using the computer for school purposes would be quickly pushed off. A second reason is that pictures take a long time to be downloaded and students know they'd stand a very good chance of being caught.

They do look up some off color site though during idle periods. This is easily handled and our computer is closely monitored. Though by people not software. And as a religious school we had a solid base for expressing our views of why something is wrong. That's an edge for us. I can't say that the World Wide Web scares me anywhere near as much as Email and chat rooms though.

"Dirty pictures" are easy to come by and where even in the dark ages before the WWW (i.e. when I was a kid). The language on even strongly sexual sites is little worse then what a teacher can inadvertently overhear in a high school locker room. I believe the old ditty, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words (or pictures) will never hurt me." No, I don't like the sexual discussions, vulgar language or demeaning pictures, but kids will get to them. Internet or not.

My real fear is interactive media - Email and chat rooms. Teenagers are very vulnerable. They are unsure of themselves and of who they are. Those who are willing to tell them who they are and what they can do are a risk. The apple is not as much at fault as the serpent who gives it to an innocent child.

We'll never be able to monitor all the Email or chat rooms. The software is out there and it's free. You would be amazed at how many kids have Juno accounts. Or who spend their late nights in chat room or corresponding with acquaintances all over the world. Most often their parents don't even know this is going on!

Most are harmless. But as I type this there is a multi state search going on for a 13 year old girl and the 22 year old man she met over the Internet.

Students are going to strangers, who may or may not be who they present themselves to be, for comfort, for advise, and for ideas. Some of these conversations may be bad for them. How will they know if they are not taught? This teaching is the great need for today. And hardly anyone seems to be awake to the problem. That is the scary part.

Parents and teachers have their heads in the sand. They buy software to keep the words and pictures off the computer and think that's all there is too it. Some truly don't know what else there is. Many are just too afraid to learn about the Internet. Others know but fail to admit because admitting that a problem exists places a burden to fix the problem.

Alfred C Thompson II, Teacher, Hacker, Net Surfer,,

PS -- I'd like to point you to another essay on the censorship and children issue. It's by Jim Burrows, who used to work for Digital. He is very articulate and has thought about the issue a lot. He and his wife have several (3 I think) children. His essay is at I have a pointer to it from my essay page. 

Response from Bob Clancy

From: Bob Clancy <> Date: Sun, 30 Mar 97 7:31:22 STANDARD

I found your article very interesting. I agree with your comments including the need to teach "Internet street smarts" and exercising of judgement. A balance is in order between the needs for user access to "Internet wide" resources and protection of internal "school specific" information such as the identify of students. Just as it has been determined that corporations own their computer/network connections and can specify/limit their use, so should a school outline what types of use will and will not be allowed. Use which supports educational goals should be encouraged. Use of the system should be monitored and fed back into additional training sessions designed to discourage abuses and encourage creative uses.

I agree it is a common misconception to assume that "filtering" (or censorship) alone can protect students. Education of parents, students, and teachers is necessary before deciding on the "level of access" that is right for a given student or project. It is assumed by parents that students will be "protected" but technology can't guarantee this.

Traditionally, in a well-disciplined school, increasing levels of responsibility are given with increased maturity. The word "discipline" comes from "disciple" which means "to learn". The Internet brings the question of censorship into public focus: information is provided to schools "by default" instead of being "selected" as schools traditionally do with other curricula resources. The Internet is different than traditional resources in that it is impossible to "review" before bringing into the school because of its size and dynamic nature. A school could limit availability to information based on educational needs/goals, aggregate class maturity, individual maturity, and parental concerns.

The criteria for censorship should be well defined and should may to the schools stated educational objectives.

Both censorship and freely available information can coexist if some access points remain uncensored. Students will need to state in advance what their objectives are in the form of an "Internet Use Policy" before conducting such research. The IUP is a sort of "hall pass" which allows the student additional priveleges for a stated purpose. The IUP will be valid for a limited duration and signed by at least the student, parent, teacher or advisor, and technology coordinator. The IUP will list the types of sites that will be visited and any deviations expected from the standard school policy. The technology coordinator will make sure that the use remains consistent with and external AUPs and generally accepted practices (commonly referred to as "netiquette"). Everyone signing an IUP will make sure it is consistent with the school discipline policy.

Richard, your article has once again prevokes thought and I thank you for this. I may modify this email into a "statement of direction" to be included as part of a "DRAFT AUP" for NetDay. Our plans are to make the Internet available for teachers for the remainder of this year and over the summer. Our plan is to first "educate the educators" and then to educate the students. I'm interested in hearing your opinions or reactions to these ideas.

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