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July 15, 2010

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Security in a Web 2.0-Based Educational Environment: Issues and Answers—Part 2

Security in a Web 2.0-Based Educational Environment: Issues and Answers—Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, which appeared in the May/June issue, we looked at a range of safety and security issues affecting educators as we all strive to attain the vision enunciated at the beginning of that feature. That vision laid out a framework for security in a Web 2.0-based educational environment comprising three parts:

•21st-century learning environments: Schools are safely and effectively using Web 2.0 technologies to prepare students for their future education and careers, civic responsibilities, and personal life in the 21st century. This was our main focus in Part 1. (See Security in a Web 2.0-Based Educational Environment: Issues and Answers—Part 1, May/June 2010 Multimedia &Internet@Schools .)

•Universal digital media safety, citizenship, and literacy competencies.

•Targeted youth risk online prevention and intervention.

In Part 2, we’ll address universal digital media safety and literacy education as well as targeted youth risk online prevention.


Universal Digital Media Safety and Literacy Education

All young people must gain competencies in the safe and responsible use of digital media technologies and resources. This includes understanding risks and effective protective strategies, understanding the standards for responsible behavior, and taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

Schools are mobilizing to address digital media safety and literacy. One key factor fueling this is the new internet safety education requirements associated with the Children’s Internet Protection Act. We all recognize that students’ misuse of digital media while on or off campus is having an impact not only on their well-being and learning but also on the quality of the school community.

Unfortunately, some internet safety curriculum and professional development materials currently available, especially those developed or funded by law enforcement, present concerns. These materials support the authoritarian delivery of inaccurate, fear-based messages and simplistic rules against normative online behavior. Fear-based risk prevention approaches have never been demonstrated to be effective in preventing risk behavior. This approach may cause young people not to report negative situations because they fear adults will overreact, blame them, and restrict their online actions.

To ensure the delivery of accurate and effective instruction, schools need to develop a broad-based plan utilizing the expertise of library/digital media specialists, educational technology specialists, counselors, health teachers, school resource officers … and even older students. This multidisciplinary coordination holds excellent promise. Educational technology professionals do not want to deliver fear-based messages about these technologies, and safe school personnel know that the scare tactics approach to risk prevention is entirely ineffective.

It is necessary to closely review curriculum and professional development resources to ensure that they are grounded in the research literature and incorporate effective risk prevention. Because the majority of young people are generally making good choices online, social norms risk-prevention educational strategies can be used. The social norms approach has been shown to be highly effective for risk prevention. Ensure that the materials correct the misperception that many teens are engaging in risky online behavior, and identify, model, and promote healthy, protective behaviors. Strongly encourage peer leadership and helping behavior by stressing the importance of helping others who are at risk online: Make sure students fully understand the potential harmful consequences to others, and provide practice in helping skills. Especially in the older grades, use peer discussion approaches with the teacher asking questions that will lead to a deeper level of understanding. Provide opportunities for older students to offer guidance to younger students.

Develop a plan to use multiple instructional opportunities including direct instruction in appropriate classes, infusion throughout Web 2.0 instruction, teachable moments such as actual incidents and news reports, and informal tips such as signage and computer screens.

Targeted Youth Risk Online Prevention and Intervention

The young people who are at greater risk online are generally those who are at greater risk offline . These youth generally have psychosocial problems, friends who engage in risky behavior, and disrupted relationships with parents or caregivers. They are less likely to make good choices, less resilient in getting out of difficult situations, less likely to listen to adult guidance, and less likely to report online concerns to an adult because they are more likely to have made bad choices that led them into the situation.

Online risk behavior is grounded in mental health concerns. Because many incidents involve known peers, such behavior will often cause a disruptive or harmful impact at school. The behavior could result in criminal victimization or violation. Higher-risk situations include a wide range of risky sexual and personal relationship issues, including sexual solicitation or exploitation by teens or adults—strangers or not. Additional relationship concerns include the use of digital technologies by abusive partners to maintain control and the new phenomenon of sexting—sending sexually explicit text messages or nude images. Electronic aggression, also called cyberbullying, is the second major area of concern. Yet another concern, which has not received as much attention, is that at-risk youth may become involved in communities that foster self-harm (such as self-cutting, anorexia, and even suicide) or in hate groups or gangs. At-risk youth also frequently engage in unsafe posting of material, unsafe interactions with people, and addictive access.

Addressing the concerns of the young people who are at greater risk online will require the establishment of effective targeted risk prevention and intervention. There are no evidence-based best practices to address these concerns. The research regarding these new risks is still emerging, and the technologies and digital media activities will continue to change rapidly. Therefore, it will not be possible to emulate traditional risk prevention initiatives that establish relatively static programs that use evidence-based best practices. It will be necessary to shift to a dynamic “continuous improvement” model.

At the school level, addressing the concerns that impact the school community will require a multidisciplinary team, including safe school and educational technology personnel. Professional development for this team will be necessary. It will be helpful to conduct a needs assessment to determine what kinds of youth risk online problems are emerging in the schools and what is necessary to address these concerns.

The team will need to evaluate and modify school plans and policies that might be implicated in youth risk online issues, including threat assessment and suicide-prevention plans, bullying and harassment policies, cell phone and digital imaging device policies, and extracurricular activities policies. Ensure students have an effective way to report online concerns or crisis situations, such as a report feature on all school websites. Establish protocols that administrators must follow to investigate and intervene in situations involving online behavior that have affected student safety at school. It will be important to focus strongly on evaluation of interventions.

As these high-risk concerns are closely integrated with at-risk youth behavior, instruction should be infused into the curriculum that addresses healthy youth behavior. These classes are generally offered by health teachers or counselors.

Conclusion—The Need for Continuous Improvement

The shift to 21st-century education, enriched with Web 2.0 technologies, will result in incredible opportunities. This shift will, however, present challenges.

We cannot effectively seek to prevent young people from engaging in risky behavior if we are not paying close attention to the research and other insights into this behavior. But there is also a time lag between the emergence of a new concern and research that explores that concern, so we have to look closely at what is happening. We can’t effectively manage student internet use if we hold to the misperception that filtering is effective. And what new technological challenges are emerging that we need to address? We can’t implement new instructional approaches if schools are required to always use instructional approaches that are “scientifically based” because it can take a decade or more to meet these requirements.

It is very important that schools adopt a continuous improvement approach to addressing these issues. To the best degree possible, they should start with an understanding of the facts. Develop an approach that is based on a rationale that holds promise for success. Ensure that assessment and modification based on the results of that assessment are built-in and ongoing.

Nancy Willard , M.S., J.D., is the director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. She has degrees in special education and law. She taught “at risk” children, practiced computer law, and was an educational technology consultant before focusing her professional attention on issues of youth risk online and effective management of student internet use in 1995. Nancy is the author of two books: Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress (Research Press) and Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly (Jossey Bass). Nancy’s focus is on applying research insight into youth risk and effective research-based risk prevention approaches to these new concerns. To better address the professional development needs of educators in this area, she is developing video presentations and online classes. Her email address is

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