Dismantling the fear of “What if students see something bad online?”

Teachers often shield students from Internet sites and tools because something bad might happen. When is that fair, and when is it overreaching? (Public domain image via Unsplash.com)

In a recent workshop I was leading with teachers, the inevitable question came up.

We were looking at Google Maps Street View, discussing how it can give students a first-person view of places all over the world — and let them “walk around” independently.

Then came that inevitable question: “How do you make sure that kids don’t see inappropriate things on Google Maps Street View?”

It’s such a common concern — and a very valid one.

The heart of her question, I believe, was this:

We have fantastic digital resources at our disposal. Information is at our fingertips. Creating with what we know is easier than ever. Connecting to others is as easy as calling the classroom next door.

We can do more, see more, learn more and make more now the ever. And tomorrow, the capacity will be even greater.

Really, we’re in a golden age for education. I truly believe that.

However, this also creates even greater risk than we’ve ever seen.

Before the Internet age, teachers controlled what students were able to see with the materials they kept in the classroom. (Unless, of course, the students stumbled across one of those issues of National Geographic the teacher hadn’t actually flipped through …)

Now, with open-yet-regulated access to the Internet, the door can be thrown open to anything. And, of course, that “anything” can include some things that young kids — even high school kids — shouldn’t see in a K-12 setting.

It can happen.

Should teachers remove a website from their digital tool box because it can happen? Because something inappropriate is possible?

I’ve thought a lot about this from a variety of perspectives — as a teacher, as a leader, as a parent.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to keep kids safe — no matter how old they are.

In a K-12 setting, that goes for the littles and the bigs.

We have a legal responsibility to protect students. In the United States we have a variety of laws and mandates (COPPA, CIPA, etc.) as well as the requirement not to be negligent.

If we know that a street is busy and dangerous, it’s our responsibility to protect kids from getting hit by a car. Likewise, if we know that a website or video is full of unavoidable inappropriate content, it’s our responsibility to act to keep kids away from it.

It’s our responsibility, as teachers, to keep kids safe while they’re in our care. It has to be a top priority.

We also have a responsibility to prepare kids for the world.

The world is full of wonder — the splendor of nature, the mysteries of science, the majesty of art.

It’s also full of cruelty, vulgarity and themes and topics that kids aren’t quite prepared for yet.

The reality of the world now is that the Internet exists. It’s in our pockets. It’s in our homes. It’s even connected to some of our lamps and TVs and refrigerators.

The Internet is a portal to much of the world’s wonder. It gives kids access to answers for many of the questions they have — and access to questions that can inspire and fuel their own discovery.

It can also be a portal to the shortcomings of the world, whether we’re extremely careful about it or not.

Because the Internet is such a double-edged sword — full of potential for good and evil — it can create those concerns mentioned before.

“What if, when navigating Paris in Google Maps, students stumble upon the ‘red light district’ and see something they shouldn’t?”

“What if, when looking at news online, students stumble upon an inappropriate topic?”

“What if, when searching images in Google Docs, they find something they shouldn’t see?”

“What if, what if, what if?”

So, how do we handle all of these concerns — some legitimate, some a little more unfounded? I think it all comes down to two words.

Mitigate risk.

My brother-in-law studied insurance and risk management in college, and the second part of that field of study always caught my attention. “Risk management.”

It’s the idea that we know there’s risk in the world. It’s not called “risk elimination” because that’s not possible. We accept the fact that there’s risk, and we mitigate/reduce it.

How can we mitigate risk when it comes to kids using the Internet?

I think there are a few steps we can take.

1. Name your fears. We have to be careful when we use the phrase “something inappropriate” as our reason for rejecting a website, app or digital tool. The phrase “something inappropriate” can have many, many different meanings.

It can also be a blanket statement for not trying something because you’re afraid.

Before we dismiss something as unfit for children, let’s figure out why we think it’s unfit. Let’s call those fears by name. They may be legitimate fears, but under the light of truth and examination, they may be unfounded.

2. Decide how likely it is that our fears come true. In our Google Maps example above, how likely is it that a student stumbles upon sex-related themes in the red light district of Paris? To find out, I put the example from the workshop to the test.

In the workshop, I was talking about having students drop themselves at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. I searched for the Moulin Rouge cabaret in Maps as a location in the red light district. It was 5 kilometers from the Eiffel Tower, so the chances of students accidentally clicking their way there are pretty minute.

Could students have Googled the red light district and dropped themselves in the middle of it? Sure.

Is it likely that they would do that? Not very.

And even if they did, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t find anything inappropriate. I dropped myself in front of Moulin Rouge with Google Maps Street View and wandered around for a few minutes. I didn’t find anything inappropriate, and I was looking.

3. Weigh the good and the bad. Then make a call. Again, we’re trying to mitigate risk here. There’s always a chance that students could end up somewhere online that they shouldn’t. (Then again, when we parents take our children anywhere at all in the world, there’s a chance they could be subjected to themes, words and images we don’t want them to be. We don’t hole up in our homes in fear of that, though. We still live our lives.)

We can’t make decisions based solely on the trouble kids might get into. It’s like the tech director that locks down the Internet for the whole district just because “those kids might abuse it.” We end up missing out on fantastic learning opportunities when we take that approach.

We’ve named our fears. Now, let’s name the benefits — what will students learn or experience? Put them both on the scales and see how you feel.

And, while you’re at it, keep this little poem by Erin Hanson in mind:

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh, but my darling,
What if you fly?

Then, after asking yourself, “Is this the best thing for my students?”, it’s time to pull the trigger, one way or another.

What if it all goes wrong?

Because we’re mitigating risk instead of eliminating it, the risk is still there. That means that something could still go wrong. Despite your best-laid plans, students still may end up seeing something they shouldn’t online. It can happen.

What then?

I’ve thought about this from two perspectives: as a parent and as a teacher.

As a parent — What if one of my children stumbled upon something inappropriate online in his/her class? How would I feel?

To be totally honest, the thought of my children seeing something profane, vulgar or obscene online in the presence of a teacher made me think twice about writing this post at all. It’s something I don’t want to happen.

But the reality is that they’re going to see and hear those inappropriate things — on the bus, in the restroom, at practice and even online.

Here’s what I’d like to know from the teacher in case it happened: that the teacher …

  • had a good academic reason for doing the activity
  • weighed the pros and the cons
  • did his/her due diligence to mitigate the risk
  • was able to use the incident as a teachable moment

That’s the best we can do as teachers, especially in a world where we can’t stop bad things from happening. If my child went on a field trip and saw vulgar graffiti on the wall or heard a passerby shout an obscene word, I wouldn’t fault the teacher for taking the class into that situation. I’d especially feel that way if that teacher mitigated the risk, checking out the neighborhood and the content of the field trip beforehand.

As a teacher — Children are going to witness things that, as adults, we wish they wouldn’t witness. They’ll hear things we don’t want them to hear.

Sometimes, they’ll just flat-out abuse their access to the Internet. When given freedom, sometimes kids do dumb stuff with it. (Heck, sometimes adults do dumb stuff with their freedom.) Sometimes, that stuff is illegal, and sometimes it hurts — or threatens to hurt — other people.

Part of me as a teacher wants those things to happen when I’m around.

Does that sound crazy?

I know that if a student stumbles on an inappropriate website while I’m in the room, I can help that student manage the situation. We can talk about it if necessary. I can steer him/her away from it when I see it. I have some control in turning that experience into a teachable moment.

I know that if it happens when I’m around, I can help the student understand it so it doesn’t happen again.

If it happens outside of school — while they’re still students or after they’ve graduated — it could screw up their lives. Or their families’ lives.

Arrest. Imprisonment. Probation. Divorce. Loss of custody. Harm to others.

If it has to happen, as a teacher, I want to be there to help that student never make that mistake again.

Fear can’t rule the day

The bottom line is this: We can’t let vague fears drive decisions about what kids can and can’t do online. “Something inappropriate” isn’t enough.

If we have true, specific, named concerns that outweigh any academic benefits, that’s one thing. But removing — or completely banning — something online because something inappropriate might potentially happen isn’t a proactive approach to helping kids.

Non-specific fears — the “something could happen” fears — disempower us. Naming our fears and deciding what we can do about them is empowering.

“What if I fall?”

“Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”

Question: How do you decide what is OK for your students to use, see or hear? Do you mitigate risk, or do you do something different? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

NOTE: As of publication of this post, my website is generating error messages when you try to post a comment. I’m working on getting that resolved. If you can’t post a comment, feel free to tweet to me (@jmattmiller) or email (matt at ditch that text book dot com).

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Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:

  Date Event / Event Details City / More Info
+ 01/02/2018
Salem CSC Salem, IN
+ 01/03/2018
Casey-Westfield Casey, IL
+ 01/05/2018
Taylorville CUSD Taylorville, IL

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