THE BLOG
03/13/2008 01:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are Candidates Sweeping "Keeping Kids' Safe" Under the Political Rug?

I know...they are just trying to get the nod at this point. But does that mean they should leave out important issues, like keeping America's kids' safe online, just because opponent bashing will get them more votes? Hillary Clinton's camp came up with an impressive Internet Safety Guide that no one really knows about. Why? She isn't talking about it. Barack Obama lists the topic of Internet safety for our children and states this issue as one of importance in his technology issues section of his agenda, while McCain has previously been vocal about his support for this issue of national, even global, importance for families everywhere. So, why are they not discussing Internet safety and education issues, the increase in Internet crimes against kids', and media literacy efforts on the 2008 campaign "smear" trail?

It is safe to say that if the motto "Educate Not Regulate" was actually implemented it could create lasting, concrete results when it comes to Internet safety and media literacy efforts. For example, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was passed by Congress in 1998 in an effort to restrict minors' access to adult-oriented websites. Now 10 years later, it was recently struck down again by a lower court. Just think about all the money that has been spent litigating this case that instead could have been spent on media literacy and online safety awareness campaigns that would have reached children and families around the world. Here are some recent facts.

* 64% of teens post photos or videos of themselves online, while more than half (58%) post info about where they live.

* 32% of all teens and 43% of teens active in social networking have been contacted online by a complete stranger.

* 69% of teens regularly receive personal messages online from people they don't know and most of them don't tell a trusted adult about it

* 23% of children have had an encounter with a stranger on the Internet, including 7% of children who reported having met someone in the real world from the Internet

* 79% of sexual solicitation incidents happened to youth while they were using their home computer

* 40% of solicitations began with a solicitor communicating with a youth through an instant message or "IM"

* 56% of solicitations contained a request for the youth to send photographs of themselves to the solicitor and 27% of solicitations contained a request for the youth to send a sexual picture of themselves

* 34% of youth have encountered unwanted sexual material while online


Education is a vital part in online child protection efforts. In fact, parental control tools that incorporate education as a key component in product offerings are making big statements in the Internet safety education world, especially with privately labeled browsers such as the ones for the Children"s Educational Network (CEN), Shrek, McGruff, Miss America, and soon-to-be-launched Loral Langemeier - The Millionaire Maker.

For parents, combating the problem of unwanted online media exposure means they must rely on a mix of technological controls, informal household media rules, and, most importantly, education and media literacy efforts. Pioneers and experts in the Internet safety field, such as CEN Founder/CEO Greg Writer, use a compelling metaphor to explain why education is the most important tool on which parents and policymakers should rely:

Internet safety, when thought of in the form of fences around pools, pool alarms, and locks, can help protect children from drowning in swimming pools. However, teaching a child to swim and when to avoid pools or other bodies of water, not simply focusing on what is only in our own backyard, is a far safer approach than relying on locks, fences, and alarms to prevent him or her from drowning. Locks, fences and alarms provide substantial benefit. But parents cannot rely exclusively on those devices to keep their children safe from drowning. Furthermore, teaching a child to exercise good judgment has relevance far beyond a single swimming pool.

Sadly, we often fail to teach our children how to "swim" in the deep end of internet waters. It is clear that a serious media literacy and Internet safety education agenda is needed in America. Government should push media literacy efforts at every level of the education process and our Presidential candidates should be talking about it during every phase of the election, and post election, process. And those efforts should be accompanied by widespread public awareness campaigns to better inform parents about the parental control tools, rating systems, online safety tips, and other media control methods at their disposal.

A good example of an effective awareness campaign is one that began in the early 1980s, when the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) developed its popular "McGruff the Crime Dog" campaign . The McGruff campaign, which included the "Take a Bite Out of Crime" motto, offers publications and teaching materials on a variety of topics; programs that can be implemented in communities and schools, local, regional, and national training programs; public service announcements broadcast nationwide starring McGruff the Crime Dog; and support for a national coalition of crime prevention practitioners. The NCPC reports that "now 25 years after McGruff's first TV appearance, more than 75 percent of children recognize McGruff and over 4,000 law enforcement agencies own a McGruff suit." www.ncpc.org/about. CEN is now partnering with NCPC and launching the "McGruff Takes a Bite Out of Internet Crime" via the McGruff Parental Control Browser using CEN Technology.

This same type of effort, as listed above for the McGruff original campaign, needs to be emulated on the Internet safety front. Government officials should seek to incorporate these examples, using Private Label Browsers with their image, as McGruff has done with CEN, if they want to construct a seriousl public awareness campaign about parental controls and online child protection efforts.

If policymakers want to encourage more widespread awareness and adoption of parental control tools and online child safety methods, they will need to expand their current efforts considerably and look at a bill introduced by Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL) entitled the "Safeguarding America's Families by Enhancing and Reorganizing New and Efficient Technologies Act of 2006," or "SAFER NET" Act (H.R. 1008). The measure seeks to better coordinate and expand online safety education and efforts at the federal level by creating a new Office of Internet Safety and Public Awareness at the Federal Trade Commission that is explicitly responsible for improving public awareness and education about Internet safety.

If the legislation she introduced were ever implemented, the new FTC Office of Internet Safety and Public Awareness could co-create plans and materials for other lawmakers and communities. Officials from that office, along with experts such as Greg Writer who can speak out from personal experience and share the importance of the educational aspect of CEN's technology, might be available to assist lawmakers or even accompany them on speaking tours to discuss parental controls and online child safety.

I say someone needs to light a fire under these candidates and get them talking about an issue they "say" -- well, except for so far on the campaign trail -- is important to them.