The danger in blocking the Internet too much

An Internet filter can protect students from harmful content, but often it protects them from inspiring, useful content. A stifling Internet filter can have negative consequences. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

An Internet filter can protect students from harmful content, but often it keeps them from inspiring, useful content. A stifling Internet filter can have negative consequences. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

It’s the nightmare of students trying to create or do research digitally. It’s the frustration of teachers seeking out the best resources to share with their classes.

The over-protective school Internet filter.

Many of us deal with them daily. We’ll do a Google search, see the perfect article or site to share with our students and won’t be able to access it. Or we’ll be primed to try something new in class and find that the digital tool our lesson hinges on is blocked.

As a Spanish teacher, one of my biggest frustrations was to find what I thought was the perfect “real life” article that my students could read and have no access to it. Lightspeed would tell me it was categorized “world-es”, which I believe means “it’s in Spanish and we’re not sure what it is, so we blocked it.”

The Internet filter debate is a dicey one. As educators, we’re required by law to protect students from harmful online content. But our students also desperately need us to connect them to relevant, engaging, interesting, thought-provoking ideas to prepare them for the world.

Where the line is drawn between those two extremes is a battlefield that educators, tech professionals and administrators have waged war for years.

I don’t have the silver bullet for solving that problem, but I do know this:

Having a “block first”, “say no first” attitude doesn’t help kids. It’s a philosophy in many schools and districts that has become “textbook,” and it’s one we desperately need to ditch.

The Internet is like the Wild West. Anyone can create a website, and anyone can publish any kind of content — whether it’s legit, false, slanderous, enlightening, obscene or inappropriate.

Trying to protect children with overly restrictive Internet filters doesn’t make it go away. Schools try to create “walled gardens” with Internet filters, but students have to walk outside those walls to go to the buses every day. On the way home on their cell phones, on their computers at home, using the WiFi at McDonald’s — they’re back in the Wild West.

Students don’t need walled gardens. What they need is guidance in how to manage the reality of the Internet. 

Sure, if we open the Internet up to more sites — even ones that students could abuse — they could get into trouble. They could stumble upon things they shouldn’t see, and they may bump into people who say things they won’t want to hear.

They’re going to get that their entire lives, though.

I would much rather help a student step out of a muddy mess he/she has stepped into online as a teacher and learn not to do it again than the alternative when that student becomes an adult. That alternative might be losing a job, destroying a relationship, or going to jail.

Children need adults who will help them learn to be safe and careful on the Internet much more than adults who turn a blind eye to it and pretend it doesn’t exist.

“But if we open these sites up, what if kids abuse them?” I hear variations of this concern all the time.

If we worry about the pitfalls all the time, we miss out on the summits that students can climb.

We get consumed by the “what ifs.”

But what about these “what ifs” …

What if kids find out about a cause that touches their heart and they use the web to research and create a campaign that makes real change — in their own community and beyond?

What if kids find tools that help them express skills they never realized they had — and then find a community of people to support them as they develop those skills into adulthood?

What if kids get connected to real-life experts in the fields that they’re passionate about, make some contacts that can help them in the future, and get started pursuing their passions before they graduate?

What if kids learn to harness the enormous power of the Internet and it changes their lives?

Sure, kids can abuse the access to the Internet that we give them. But they can also do some serious damage with pencils, and we give those to them every day.

If we block too much content, we make this restricted version of the Internet practically useless to kids, and kids are resourceful. If they need access to something on the web, they’ll find it somewhere else.

They’ll find it on their phones using cellular data that isn’t restricted. (Cell phone use isn’t allowed at your school? Do you think every “can I go to the restroom?” you hear is to really use the restroom?)

Some will even find portals that allow them to bypass the school’s filters and find what they really wanted anyway. We may find those portals and block them … but then they’ll find new ones, and that’s an exhausting, frustrating cycle of control that doesn’t make anyone better.

So, what can we do?

Let’s open up the discussion about what’s blocked and what isn’t. The decision process shouldn’t be controlled by a “Wizard of Oz”-style mysterious man behind the curtain. Teachers, administrators, tech staff, parents and even students have perspectives that add to the debate.

Let’s take a “yes first” mentality to opening up sites, or even a “let’s try it” mentality. We’re all in this to help kids achieve their potential, and if someone wants to try something that will inspire and educate kids, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt (unless there are clear dangers).

Let’s keep our eyes open to the dangers of the web, and let’s have frank, honest discussions with kids when they get into messes (or are headed toward a mess).

Let’s be our students’ voice and advocate for the change we know needs to happen.

Let’s empower teachers and students to create the best learning environment possible.

When it comes to setting Internet filters, instead of asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”, let’s ask, “What’s the best that could happen?”

Update: Check the comments below for a response by Jimmy Hogg, an IT professional, who gives a very well-worded rebuttal from the IT side of this discussion. It’s an important part of this discussion!

[reminder]What do we need to remember when it comes to Internet filters in schools? What can we do to make them successful and useful?[/reminder]

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