Children at Risk Online: Problems and Solutions
Posted: November 7, 2007
Hatemongers on the Internet have had electronic tools to spread racism and bigotry for more than 20 years.
But there is now becoming available to haters a new set of online tools, including social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace and video sites such as YouTube that are being used both for legitimate purposes, and for spreading hate.
These emerging technologies, dubbed "Web 2.0," are increasingly causing concern for teachers and parents because kids online are the most vulnerable, according to three experts who discussed the issue of "Children at Risk Online" during ADL's 2007 annual meeting.
"Before the Internet, hate speech was distributed in plain brown envelopes," said Christopher Wolf, Partner, Proskauer Rose LLP and Chair of ADL's Internet Task Force. "Today, hatemongers use the Internet and all of its messaging tools, and the most at risk are kids, who are impressionable and who are vulnerable."
The challenges facing online service providers of Internet access and social networking sites in the Web 2.0-era are daunting, especially when it comes to the dissemination of hate speech, said Stephen Kline, Chief Safety Officer at Xanga.com. "The volume is so huge," he said, noting that Xanga.com has 30 million members worldwide, and less than 30 employees.
"A lot of Internet companies are young, immature, and don't have a lot of legal advice and don't have the experience dealing with hate speech. … But that is not an excuse for not taking care of it," said Mr. Kline. "Ignoring it, or not taking action, is unacceptable. … You set the rules of your community and if you don't want it (offensive speech) on there, you can get it off."
Harry Valetk, Corporate Privacy Director of MetLife, said that part of the difficulty in protecting children is that many of the emerging technologies, such as online gaming, appeal to both adult and teen demographics, and therefore raise a whole new host of issues. "You think online games, and you think kids, but the trend is showing adults spending a lot of time online in a virtual reality world. There are different demographics and different issues that go along with that."
Protecting Children: Some Solutions
Children using the Internet of today's next-generation technologies need to understand the values of empathy and respectful communication, and these values can be taught in the context of using technology, said Scott Hirschfeld, ADL's Director of Curriculum.
"We can help children to understand and challenge those unspoken social norms of the Internet," he explained.
Parents also need to play a more active role in being involved and monitoring what their children are doing online. "Many adults are unaware of what is going on online," said Mr. Hirschfeld.
New technologies have made it easier for children to communicate, but along with the technology comes a new set of challenges, said Mr. Kline.
"Anything I can do on a computer five years ago, I can do on the phone today," he said. "The most troubling thing is that they are always with you. There's a lot more real time harassment, bullying and non-thinking going on."
Parents need to engage with their children and understand how the technology works, he added. "It is good to know what that phone can do, how they are using it, and just to engage."
Hirschfeld said he teaches students that the rule should be, "If you wouldn't do it in person, why would you do it online?" I think that is the message that we need to be sending to young people."