The seventh-grade classroom at Aptos Middle School buzzed with animated kids, many of whom whispered to friends and shot curious looks at the visitors scattered around their classroom.
Local politicians, the superintendent of schools and media visited the classroom of 25 kids last Friday to watch a special lesson designed to teach children how to protect themselves online. All 55,000 elementary to high school students in San Francisco got the lesson on the same day, part of fulfilling a new requirement to a U.S. law called the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). To get federal funding, public schools have to instruct students how to protect their privacy, avoid cyberbullying and practice ethical behavior online.
The U.S. is the only nation that requires online safety instruction at public schools, but other countries may soon join it. The European Commission is mulling over a law that would mandate educating kids about online safety, and in the UK, newly appointed adviser on childhood, Claire Perry, is talking about the need to make online safety part of the public school curriculum.
But much of what is taught about online safety is not rooted in evidence, according to Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, a global organization based in Washington, D.C.
"There's precious little research on the effectiveness of online safety education," said Balkam, who also worries that a fear-based message about the dangers online can overlook the Internet's many benefits.
The U.S. Department of Education cites a 2008-2009 poll that shows 28 percent of students reported being bullied at school, while 6 percent were bullied online.
The next public event to draw attention to kids' use of the Internet is coming up on Feb. 5, when the EU and U.S. will observe Safer Internet Day.
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