Keeping Kids Safe in Cyberspace
By Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter

The Internet has become a common tool and a favorite toy for America's youth who regularly use the technology for both school assignments and recreational surfing.  As the Internet evolves, however, so do the dangers associated with children roaming free in cyberspace.  To raise awareness about these dangers, one California organization has taken on the task of educating young people about the potential threats that exist in the online world.

iSAFE America, an Internet safety education foundation, was founded in 1998 with the goal of teaching children and adolescents in grades K-12 how to act responsibly and be safe while they are online.

"There have been so many Internet-related crimes all across the country, [especially involving children]," said Laura McIntosh, Director of Education for iSAFE.  "It's a very real problem."

The FBI reports that online child pornography/ sexual exploitation is the most significant cyber crime they confront involving children.  Also, a 1999 survey funded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that one in five youth had received a sexual approach or solicitation over the Internet in the previous year and one in 17 had been threatened or harassed.

Promoting Internet Safety in Every State

The growing prevalence of online crimes against children prompted Congress to award iSAFE nearly $3.5 million to launch Internet safety initiatives in 24 states in 2002.  The foundation also received an additional $5 million from Congress in 2003 to promote its message and educational materials to the rest of the nation.

"At this point we're about halfway done," said Jonathan King, iSAFE's Community Outreach Director.   "It's pretty rigorous," he said. "We're launching [programs] all the time."

Each week, iSAFE goes to different states to train people in how to administer Internet safety programs.  Recently, the foundation visited Kentucky, Montana, Tennessee and Maine to start Internet safety programs in those states.

iSAFE uses a train-the-trainer model and typically runs a five-hour professional development program for school administrators who then become qualified to train other educators, McIntosh said.  "Everybody has to be trained," she said.

Once educators are trained, they fill out an implementation plan, which iSAFE reviews.  If it's acceptable, they can order educational materials from the foundation, which has developed a standard curriculum for teaching Internet safety.

Learning a Lesson

iSAFE's curriculum consists of five main lessons that focus on issues such as  understanding the Internet, behaving appropriately while online and recognizing dangerous situations.

"It's very scripted as far as what the lessons are," McIntosh said.  "[The educators] determine the time frame, [though]," she said, noting that the five lessons can be taught over one week, several weeks or several months, depending on how an individual school implements the curriculum.

Internet safety lessons begin by introducing the concept of the Internet community to students so that they understand that their behavior online can translate into real-life problems.

"With community, we're trying to build the foundation that everything that happens online is part of the real world," McIntosh said.  "There are very dangerous and real consequences for our behavior online."

After students grasp the fact that their actions on the Internet can affect reality, their next lesson focuses on cyber-security.

In cyber-security education, students learn about cyber-etiquette, such as cyber-bullying and its consequences, and they are also taught how to identify computer viruses.

"A lot of the younger students open up everything [that is emailed to them, which puts their computers at risk for contracting viruses]," McIntosh said. 

Once the students understand how to interact respectfully with others online and how to prevent their computers from becoming infected with viruses, the focus of their Internet education shifts to personal safety.

"We just really talk about bad people, what they do and how they use the Internet as a tool," McIntosh said.

Students are warned about online predators and encouraged not to give out identifying information such as their names, addresses, phone numbers and school locations, said McIntosh. 

To drive home the point, members of local law enforcement, the FBI and school resource officers often go into classrooms to teach this lesson and others.

"It's really up to the individual school as to how much [teaching] the law enforcement does," McIntosh said.  "They can bring in real life cases and stories," she said.

"[Law enforcement can give] examples of what's occurring [in the community] so it becomes more important to those students because it's happening right there," King added.

After these real-life situations illustrate the risks of using the Internet, students the focus on their last lesson: intellectual property.

Students learn about why they shoud not plaigerize work from the Internet or illegally download music, practices to which many teenagers can relate.

Webcasting the Message

Intellectual property was a hot topic recently in Maui, Hawaii, where iSAFE recently filmed an online broadcast or webcast to deliver Internet safety education to high school students.

While Internet safety lessons are presented to the lower grades in a more traditional classroom fashion, high school students learn by watching a webcast, which is set up like a newscast and presented online by students.

"The whole point of the webcast lesson is for students to take ownership of their online behavior," said King.  "They touch on topics related to [the students'] environment," King said, noting that, in Maui, students' opinions were split over the issue of downloading music; some felt that it should be allowed because musicians make enough money already and others believed that the music should be protected.

"[Webcasts] really adopt the concept of peer-to-peer communication," King said, "so we can come up with answers to issues in the world."

Reaching out

In addition to student education, another goal of iSAFE is to bring the message about the importance of Internet safety into communities.

"We concentrate on speaking to community leaders, business people, parents, elders and students," King said about iSAFE's outreach efforts.

For example, iSAFE will work with school parent-teacher organizations by providing them with Internet safety materials to distribute to parents. 

"Education in the classroom can only go so far," King said.  "[Community outreach] is vital," he said.  "Without that synergy it becomes difficult to make a change in people's lives."
Through education and community outreach, iSAFE has been able to get the word out about the potential risks that are associated with using the Internet and teach students how to stay safe online.

"It basically comes down to the safety of our youth," McIntosh said.  "You wouldn't just give a child the keys to the car and say go drive [without teaching them first]."


To learn more about iSAFE America, go to
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339