The internet isn’t as dangerous as people think, and teachers should let students use social networks at school.

That’s the surprising new recommendation from the National School Boards Association — a not-for-profit organization representing 95,000 school board members — in a new study funded by Microsoft, News Corporation, and Verizon.

It warns that many fears about the internet are just overblown. “School district leaders seem to believe that negative experiences with social networking are more common than students and parents report,” the study reports. For example, more than half the districts think sharing personal information has been “a significant problem” in their schools — “yet only 3% of students say they’ve ever given out their email addresses, instant messaging screen names or other personal information to strangers.”

In fact, the Association and resesearchers at Grunwald Associates LLC surveyed 1,277 students online (between the ages of 9 and 17) — along with 1,039 parents, and 250 school district leaders “who make decisions on internet policy.” And the students reported big differences from the adults’ concerns. Only 20% said they’d seen “inappropriate” pictures on social networking sites in the last 3 months. (And only 11% of parents concur, even for the last 6 months.) Only 18% of the students said they’d seen “inappropriate” language, and just 7% reported they’d been “cyberbullied,” or asked about their personal identity on a social networking site.

Furthermore, the numbers got even smaller when the students were asked about more worrisome situations. Only 4% of the students said they’d ever had an online conversation that made them uncomfortable, and only 2% said an online stranger tried to meet them in person. In fact, after surveying 1,277 students, the researchers found exactly one who reported they’d actually met a person from the internet without their parents’ permission — and described this as “0.08 percent of all students.”

“Only a minority of students has had any kind of negative experience with social networking in the last three months,” the study concludes. “Even fewer parents report that their children have had a negative experience over a longer 6-month period.”

The researchers concluded that the vast majority of students “seem to be living by the online safety behaviors they learn at home and at school.” Many students even reported that they were using the social networks to discuss their schoolwork or other education-related topics.

Yet fear of safety for children continues to haunt policy — both at school boards and the national level. (In May, a Senate resolution was co-sponsored by Barack Obama and Joe Lieberman highlighting how dangerous they thought the internet could be.) The National School Boards Association found strict controls had taken hold at most schools over student internet access.

  • 84% of school districts have rules against online chatting in school
  • 81% have rules against instant messaging in school
  • 62% prohibit blogging or participating in online discussion boards at school.
  • 60% prohibit sending and receiving email in school
  • 52% prohibit any social networking sites in school

“Students and parents report fewer recent or current problems, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying and unwelcome personal encounters than school fears and policies seem to imply,” the study notes.

In light of these findings, they’re recommending that school districts may want to “explore ways in which they could use social networking for educational purposes” — and reconsider some of their fears. It won’t be the first time educators have feared a new technology, the study warns. “Many schools initially banned or restricted Internet use, only to ease up when the educational value of the Internet became clear. The same is likely to be the case with social networking.

“Safety policies remain important, as does teaching students about online safety and responsible online expression — but student may learn these lessons better while they’re actually using social networking tools.”

Social networking may be advantageous to students — and there could already be a double standard at work. 37% of districts say at least 90% of their staff are participating in online communites of their own — related to education — and 59% of districts said that at least half were participating. “These findings indicate that educators find value in social networking,” the study notes, “and suggest that many already are comfortable and knowledgeable enough to use social networking for educational purposes with their students.”

In fact, 76% of parents expect social networking will improve their children’s reading and writing skills, or help them express themselves more clearly, according to the study, and parents and communities “expect schools to take advantage of potentially powerful educational tools, including new technology.”

“Clearly both district leaders and parents are open to believing that social networking could be such a tool — as long as there are reasonable parameters of use in place. Moreover, social networking is increasingly used as a communications and collaboration tool of choice in business and higher education. As such, it would be wise for schools, whose responsibility it is to prepare students to transition to adult life with the skills they need to succeed in both arenas, to reckon with it.”Ultimately what’s holding them back is a fear of the unknown, the report suggests. It urges school board members to explore social networks, for one simple reason.

“Many adults, including school board members, are like fish out of water when it comes to this new online lifestyle.”

This article originally appeared in on August 7, 2007.

Home Old Archives Schoolboards: net dangers over-rated; bring social networks to school