Is the Internet Our Children’s Bogeyman? A Few Reflections about Protection Policies and Web Filters

Is the Internet Our Children’s Bogeyman? A Few Reflections about Protection Policies and Web Filters

No doubt, the web is one of the greatest inventions of the last decades.

It has already become a stable part of our daily lives, to the point that thinking of living without it seems impossible. Not only for leisure, like streaming a movie or listening to music on web-radio, but also for professional and social purposes. Arguing for the importance and relevance of that fact is unnecessary, since our own personal experience suffices to grasp the benefits and progress that this new media has brought into our lives. However, balance and control are necessary to avoid the dangers of an excessive and inappropriate use of the internet, above all when children are online, by themselves and without the guidance of parents or educators. In order to understand when and how to apply realistic policies concerning internet filters and protection from the web’s dangers, we spoke with Davide.it Association , an Italian organization which has been active for many years in this field.

-How and why was the Davide.it Association created? What are your goals?

In 1997, having opened an internet access point in the library of his Oratory, one of the Association’s founders Father Ilario Rolle discovered the need to protect kids from inappropriate content which would appear on the internet in truly subtle, and invasive ways.

Along with a group of people sensitive to these problems, he created an Internet Services Society that had the goal of responding to new educational demands, placing at the disposition of teachers, parents, and children, both instruments and knowledge helpful for using information technology in an adequate way. Our seasoned experience in these years has brought us to the choice of constructing a filtered web meant to help parents and teachers in their task.
This is how Davide, the first filtered internet service working in Italy, was created. We gave the initiative the name of a small but great hero, who is both proud and hits the mark: David, who with his slingshot strikes internet’s Goliath, the worldwide spider web of pornography.
Today, Davide.it is a non-profit association that promotes every type of protection for minors, with attention to the weakest subjects, or those at risk of abuse or violence, especially in the computer environment.

-The formation of children, especially those who attend elementary and middle schools, towards the correct use and awareness of the media is no longer just optional. In fact, AIART’s latest study ( see article ) has launched a cry of alarm concerning Internet Addiction Disorder, a new phenomenon concerning internet dependence characterized by anxiety and behavior problems, that is widespread among young people. What are your actions and formative activities in this regard and which initiatives are you pursuing?

For years, the Davide.it Association has been promoting formative meetings, aimed at children, parents, and educators alike, with the goal of stimulating discussion on important issues about the security of minors on the web.
During the most recent years, Davide.it organized educational meetings in more than 250 school classes in all of Italy, reaching more than 6,000 children, together with their parents and teachers. These meetings, called Safe Social Media, fall within the area of European projects aimed at reducing the impact and consumption of violence in the social media. Their educational content is developed in collaboration with teachers, pedagogues, psychologists, and experts in new technology.
Among the main topics presented at these meetings are the following: risks connected to the internet and new communication technology; filtered navigation and protection strategies; responsible use of cell phones; and videogames and social media.
We are always available to speak in schools, either by integrating into already defined programs in the institution or by developing discussions ad hoc together with teachers. We give particular attention to the late elementary and early middle school age, since access to the internet is being offered to children ever earlier.

-Of course, it is not enough to just address children. Designated educational activities are also necessary, focused above all on prevention regarding adults. To this end, formation meetings held in parishes, libraries, and schools can prove very useful.

In fact, synergy between parents and teachers is essential. Filtering the web is really only the first step: it is good to put forth effort in order to protect navigation at least minimally, and only right for parents and institutions to promote the use of filters on webpages.
We believe however, that beyond all that, parents have another more difficult task: not just limiting internet access and protecting their children from evil, but cultivating in them the taste and desire for goodness. The educator’s challenge is to encourage young people to use all the possibilities internet can offer with intelligence: to become sources of communication, to gather and order knowledge and relationships, and to communicate in a truly creative way.
Towards this end, for years the Association has carried out information campaigns about informed use of the internet and the protection of minors’ rights on the web, aimed both at teachers and parents. It has also organized study conferences and seminars, taken care of various publications, and spread newsletters about information and formation.
It also offers a website, www.davide.it , containing material that is constantly updated about all cultural and educational aspects inherent in the internet. It is meant to become a helpful resource for educators..

- More and more children are being left alone in front of the television, playing videogames, or surfing the internet. Certainly these are low-cost “babysitters.” Prolonged and unprotected or unfiltered exposure to media may have undesirable side effects on children’s growth and development. For sure, we may agree that the first thing for parents is to be aware the problem exists. Yet there are also practical measures and solutions that can be taken; perhaps systems for setting or limiting the amount of internet usage, for example. Any advice?

With the new filtering system of Davide.it: Protected House, it is finally possible to manage the hours when the internet can be accessed. Parents can therefore set limits, since often children connect via wifi with their own smartphones even at night. With the possibility of accessing the internet through different kinds of devices that are increasingly “portable” such as cell phones and tablets, beyond the traditional computer, time spent on the web has become an ever growing problem. An adolescent’s use of the PC should not surpass one hour daily. We know adolescents spend between 2 and 5 hours every day on different media, connected with cell phones or other devices.
Besides these technical measures, education is a key point in this regard. The Association has also spread useful instruments that can be found on our website www.davide.it. For example, we have published the “Ten Commandments” of advice for a positive use of the internet and new technology. Among other points, it recounts: “Establish together with your children how much time they can dedicate to surfing on the net, and above all do not consider the computer a replacement baby-sitter.” It further includes, “Clear deals for the use of cell phones,” and a behavioral code shared by parents and children can offer helpful insights for regulating the use of cell phones.

-The internet is without a doubt one of the greatest technological discoveries of the latest years. Its convenience and benefits are enormous, for both work and daily life combined. Just like with many other things however, if we veer away from the good sense of an informed and balanced usage, risks are born—above all for the weakest among us, such as children. What are some of these dangers? What should be the parents’ role?

Much of what we find on the internet is trash, and the web can indeed become a maze of traps since it truly contains everything: pornography, violence, Satanism, sites encouraging eating disorders or gambling.
In general, research shows that parents and children know the dangers, but underestimate them. The data concerning perception of risk is worrying.
Besides access to inappropriate or unsuitable content, there is the risk of possible contact with unknown people, through unsupervised chats or social networks. Other unpleasant situations include identity theft, and not least of these negative actions, cyberbullying. For this reason it is advisable not to give too much information in personal accounts, especially on social networks. We can never be fully certain about who will come to possess our data and use it to their advantage.
It is essential that parents, educators, and teachers make an effort to protect the rights of children, giving them the security of a filter that is truly effective without being repressive.
In addition, a sound piece of advice, one of our Ten Commandment points, is the following: “Encourage sincere dialogue with your children regarding the internet, and inform yourself about their interests and which websites they constantly visit. The best protection is good family relationships.”

-Are there legal policies or legislation in Italy, or the rest of the world, in defense of a minor’s access and navigation protection? Is anything being done on a public level, even just the spread of a culture of prevention that warns about dangers? Or is everything being left to the initiative of parents and Family Associations?

The Code of Internet Self-regulation @ Minors , which Davide.it helped to draft, was launched in November 2003. It seeks to fight the traps that the Web can aim at young children and promotes a correct use of the resources offered by this information society’s new technologies.
It is a minor’s right to be protected, also on the internet: the right to a balanced development, in fact, is recognized by national and international legal standards. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in New York by the United Nations’ General Assembly on November 20, 1989 and ratified under the Act of May 27 1991, n. 176. It holds accountable all public and private subjects, and points out the family duty to collaborate in providing conditions that will allow minors to live an autonomous life in society, in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality, solidarity; it also prohibits subjecting them to any form of violence, mental abuse, or exploitation.
On the practical level however, it seems as though these ruling are not enough. Throughout the years, different agents have promoted initiatives concerning protection sensitization (such as the campaigns by the Ministry of Communication, Post Police, and Connectivity Businesses), but more often than not they are short lived projects that don’t maintain the necessary presence over time, something that is essential for truly effective action.
There is a great need for information, and education about the responsible use of the Internet and new media is a subject that is still barely present in normal school curricula, and when it is so, it is a result of spontaneous initiative of single attentive teachers or parents..