Into the wild: Online learning brings risk

Internet safety is a concern as children spend more time online doing virtual and distance learning. Photo by Nevit Dilmen / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The COVID-19 pandemic has students spending more time online, whether they’re enrolled in the district’s virtual curriculum or they’re traditional students spending at least part of their time in distance learning. Since school started, some parents who can’t be home with their children during the day have expressed concern about students having to complete and submit lessons on their own.

But that isn’t the only problem hours of unsupervised screentime is causing.

Some students might be struggling with school lessons, but others are taking advantage of that unsupervised time to explore the internet and learn lessons the adults in their lives find shocking.

Tiffany Ecko enrolled her three children in virtual learning at the beginning of the school year out of concern for their health.

She said all seemed to be going well until a few weeks ago when her kids started falling behind in their school work.

As she began looking into what they were doing all day, Ecko says she found they were spending a lot of time on video apps like YouTube and TikTok. She checked their browser history and some of the content they had accessed outraged her.

She mentions the video for “WAP,” an explicit song about the female anatomy by rapper Cardi B, as just one example. Many of the videos they watched on TikTok also feature content she found offensive.

The family doesn’t have a lot of technology, they don’t even have cable TV, she said. So before they started virtual learning, the children didn’t have regular access to the internet, computers, tablets or smart phones.

Ecko doesn’t think they were prepared for it.

Ecko says she isn’t a tech person and didn’t realize how much her kids could access on school-issued computers. She had assumed they would only be able to do school work on them.

The situation became more serious when she realized her daughters had set up Instagram accounts and at least one of them was receiving messages from adult men, something that is all too common.

“The internet can be a great resource, but it can also be a dangerous place where predators prey on children. As children gain access to the internet through smart devices, social media, and online gaming platforms, they become more vulnerable. Nowadays, predators often use the internet to groom and sexually abuse children,” the Innocent Lives Foundation, an organization that helps police identify online child predators, says.

In 2019, CNN reported that more children are groomed by child predators on Instagram than any other social media platform. Police in England and Wales reported that one-third of online grooming cases took place on that platform the number of cases police dealt with involving Instagram grew by 200% in one year.

Although girls age 12-15 were the group most likely to be targeted, victims were as young as 5 years old and 20% of the victims were 11 or younger, according to a report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a British nonprofit.

Ecko said a man she believes was looking for one of her daughters came to her house.

Her daughters were also receiving messages from people presenting themselves as kids who were threatening to commit suicide, she said.

Ecko has since contacted Stillwater Public Schools and says access to the offending apps has been cut-off but she wishes they didn’t still have access to YouTube.

She was told it has to be available so students can watch documentaries and other educational content.

SPS Director of Technology Kevin Calvert outlined the protections built into technology used by the district.

The district uses internet filters at its facilities that limit the sites and content that devices, including guest devices, can access.

The filters meet Child Internet Protection Act requirements designed to prevent minors from accessing obscene or harmful content.

Chromebooks checked out by the district use another internet filter that blocks certain sites and makes misuse more visible.

Android apps are not allowed and Chrome browser extensions are limited to those the district has approved.

“On any Chrome browser that a student logs into with their SPS account, there is an additional blacklist of social media sites that cannot be accessed.

On hotspots provided from T-Mobile, any device connected to it is filtered by a CIPA-compliant filtering solution provided by T-Mobile nationwide for all schools enrolled in their education program.

On hotspots provided from the SDE grant, any device connected to it is filtered by a CIPA-compliant filtering solution provided by the state for all Oklahoma schools … Google’s SafeSearch is also enabled for student accounts. YouTube was recently allowed for distance learning and is running in “Moderate Restricted” mode for students and teachers (excluding the HS teachers),” Calvert wrote in response to a News Press inquiry.

Calvert said district-provided email for elementary students is only allowed between students, fellow students, and teachers. District-provided email for secondary students is allowed to parties outside the district but is monitored by a third party that notifies the school and district if certain emails of concern are sent.

Emails from certain social media domains are blacklisted.

The district’s Internet Safety Policy explains that while it uses filtering systems to prevent students from accessing inappropriate content, filtering systems have limitations and cannot be expected to be 100% effective.

Ultimately, it’s important for adults to monitor what their children are doing online and ensure they know how to avoid the dangers.

In addition to computer time, it’s important to know what they are doing on smartphones, the primary way teens access the internet.

 

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