Coinciding with our in class discussion today on cyber bullying and laws to protect children online was the signing of a joint declaration between the European Union and the US Department of Homeland Security. This declaration intends to work on online safety for children, and it announces that the two countries will make this a joint effort. The European Union has always had stricter privacy laws regarding the Internet than the United States, so it does not surprise me that Homeland Security would want to partner with them in the campaign to protect young people who use the Internet.
Of course, the Internet is potentially the most difficult place to keep safe due to the relative anonymity of its users. Traditionally, this meant predators could impersonate others; today, the roles are reversed. While predators can still disguise their identities, children also have incentive to lie. In an attempt to keep the young people safe, and in response to COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), many sites ask for the age of users. However, with kids under thirteen able to lie about their age, website providers cannot tell which users are of age, and are consequently unable to properly protect them.
This perpetual cycle makes protecting kids on the Internet through laws nearly impossible. This joint declaration proposes a different focus for online safety – through education. Instead of imposing more stringent laws, it centers on educating both parents and children on Internet safety and risk awareness. This approach ensures that when children do access sites (which they inevitably will, with or without a birthday check), they know how to properly use the website and avoid bad situations. In February, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will join in participating in the European Union’s Safer Internet Day for young people.
I think this approach will be most effective because it is the most practical. If you tell children not to go on certain websites because they are not allowed or it is not safe, they will not know how to avoid hazards when they inevitably gain access to the site. For example, studies show 38% of kids on Facebook are under the minimum age, so clearly rules are not stopping them. However, if you acknowledge they will probably find ways onto the Internet and educate them so they can properly handle themselves, they will be able to maximize the potential (socially and educationally) of the Internet.