Sep 1, 2020

When Your Kids See Porn on Their School-Issued Device, Guess Who Is Responsible? Hint: It’s Not the School District.

When Your Kids See Porn on Their School-Issued Device, Guess Who Is Responsible? Hint: It’s Not the School District.

Add This To Your Fall To-Do List, Parents: Monitor Your Child’s Remote Learning Device for Porn and Violent Content. Because The School District Won’t.

Add This To Your Fall To-Do List, Parents: Monitor Your Child’s Remote Learning Device for Porn and Violent Content. Because The School District Won’t.

Child scrolling on school-issued device Photo by StockSnap — 894430
Child scrolling on school-issued device Photo by StockSnap — 894430
Child scrolling on school-issued device Photo by StockSnap — 894430

At age six, Charlie was excited that his school district, Eanes Independent School District, in Austin, TX, was issuing iPads for all its students. He felt proud about having his “own” device and to his parents, it seemed a compelling reason to enroll their son in the district.

But when Charlie and another student were shown by an older student how to bypass the district filters by using Siri to access pornography, it took two weeks before anyone in the district noticed. By the time his parents were informed, other students had seen the images too.

Horrified, Charlie’s mom contacted the Superintendent, received a “We’ll investigate” response, and no follow-up. She tried again, and the following day, the school principal sent an email blaming the elementary students for “not abiding by the school district’s Responsible Use Guidelines” signed by every family.

An Irresponsible User Agreement

Parents, when Seattle Public School starts on Sept. 4, our youngest (K-2) students will be remote learning on iPads and older students on laptops. Students will be asked to sign a “Student Network Use Agreement,” which, in theory, they do every year, even though this year sure looks different. To jog your memory, the document stipulates what your child can and cannot do when using a district-issued computer, internet, or email login. (And the Agreement has not been updated since July of 2019 in spite of the current pandemic and remote learning situation).

Even though I could buy my middle schooler their own laptop for remote learning this fall, I am going to accept one of the district-issued devices for two reasons:

  • First, per SPS’s website, any tech support we might need is only available to us if we use a district-issued device;

  • Secondly, I want SPS to be responsible for monitoring, installing controls, and updating filters to keep students from accessing content that is violent or inappropriate.

If you don’t remember what the SPS Student Network Use Agreement says, don’t worry. The district figures you probably didn’t read it anyway, so they made this half-hearted video where they read back to you what your child signed. Please note that pretty much any violation of the agreement puts the onus back on students (or parents) — not the district who has required, issued, and supposedly applied filters to these devices.

“More Things You Agreed to With That Single Click!” Screenshot of Seattle Public School’s YouTube Video about the Student Network Use Agreement (Ironically, the video is posted on YouTube, as of 8/31/2020,)

Ignore the Fine Print

User Agreements like these are problematic for at least two reasons. First, they presume that children as young as 5 and as old as 18 have the same executive function skills. They don’t. While a high school senior still lacks adult-level judgement, he is far more aware of the potential risks associated with clicking on a phishing scam, for example, than a first grader will be. Secondly, agreements like these disregard what happens when inappropriate content appears when a child is NOT seeking it, such as in ubiquitous pop-up ads, or in the YouTube algorithms that take a viewer quickly from “cars” to “car crashes.”

The Agreement for SPS makes no mention of what happens if and when a student comes across inappropriate content inadvertently, the likelihood of which is higher than ever during remote learning and increased use of sites like YouTube. Many SPS teachers use YouTube, which is notorious for being a slippery slope of appropriate content.

But YouTube is incompatible with SPS’s requirements. I often read parents’ comments in the SPS Facebook Parent Discussion groups describing difficulties in accessing YouTube due to age restrictions. SPS defers responsibility for challenges that arise with YouTube by redirecting us to a Google help page for YouTube Help on their own website.

Screenshot of Seattle Public School’s Website under “Technology FAQs” (as of 8/31/2020)

Because Google requires users to be 13 years old, parents must either ask our children to lie about their age or we have to use our personal adult logins. This means toggling back and forth between multiple accounts and logins which, frustratingly, then do not sync with SPS platforms like Schoology.

Screenshot of Google’s Terms of Services, linked to via SPS’s “Technology FAQs” section, via YouTube Help

It Will Happen Here

Children are not small adults. Children do not have fully formed prefrontal cortices. Children are unable to assess risk, make judgements, or regulate their emotions like adults can. That part of their brains will not fully develop until they are well into their twenties or thirties. It is entirely inappropriate to assume that any student in any district will make balanced, informed choices every single time. (And that’s an unreasonable expectation even for adults: what adult do you know who consistently makes good choices online?) Parenting and teaching is about presenting information, making mistakes, learning, trying again, and improving. No one gets it right the first time, and to expect kids won’t make mistakes when using digital technology is not only a fallacy, it sets them up to fail without a safety net or the confidence to rely on adults to protect or support them.

Parents, given the number of students and teachers who are learning and teaching online this fall, the amount of time we spend trying to stay connected digitally to loved ones during a pandemic, and our attempts as families to juggle work and school and home life, it is only a matter of time before unfortunate incidents like Charlie’s happen in our schools (if they haven’t happened already). Once they came forward, Charlie’s parents found many others in their community who had experienced similar incidents, but had felt their hands were tied by the district’s hostile posture toward parents.

We are also asking teachers to do the impossible. In addition to teaching remotely, they are on the front lines of any technological misuse. There is no “big brother” at the district remotely monitoring 50,000 individual student devices. Charlie’s parents felt like his teacher was a victim in this too. She believed the district-issued iPads would be safe for students and she was not trained to be prepared for what happened next. Let me be clear: teachers did not create this problem, they inherited it.

Charlie’s experience was not an isolated incident, and it will happen again to another child in another district this year. In some places, it already has. As more of our children spend more time online for remote learning this school year, they are more at risk for online sexual exploitation. The National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCMEC) reports the number of cases reported topped 4 million in April of 2020 (up from 1 million in April of 2019). That is a 300% increase.

As a parent, I have talked to my own kids about seeing porn and violent content on the Internet. In some ways, I find it easier to explain why pornography is not appropriate for children than I am able to articulate my fears about live-streamed active shooter situations (how do I create awareness without inducing fear by bringing it up?) In our house, we assume it is a “when” not an “if” for our children: if they’re using the Internet, even the best filters will not and do not catch all that is inappropriate or nefarious. So we try to add a second layer of protection by teaching them about what to do if they see something that is uncomfortable or scary: tell us promptly. And our job as parents is to respond with, “I’m sorry that happened. Thank you for telling me. I will find a solution.”

Who Will Be Held Responsible?

Seattle Public Schools and Superintendent Juneau seem intent on holding students accountable for “responsible use” of the Internet, network, and district-issued devices as we enter into this unprecedented school year.

My questions to SPS and the Superintendent are as follows:

  • What are you doing to ensure our children don’t stumble into inappropriate content (e.g., What filters are you using and why is the information on Web Filters on the SPS website so vague?)

  • How are you going to address it when children stumble into inappropriate content because, as you state, nothing is 100% filter-proof (Board Policy №3850: the district “cannot control the content of material to which students may be exposed”)?

  • What steps are you taking to support teachers and teach students about safe Internet searches, identifying predatory behaviors, and the importance of protecting privacy online (ironic when the district collects so much student data in the first place)?

Screenshot of Seattle Public School’s Website under “Web Filter” (as of 8/31/2020)

Parents, the reality is, Seattle Public Schools, like Eanes ISD in Austin, will protect themselves before they protect our children. The “Student Network Use Agreement” our children are about to sign will lead to situations where the onus is on us to defend any incidents that occur and presume that fault lies with our child. The district will bear no responsibility for what our children may stumble into or inadvertently access, even if the devices on which they view it is provided by a district that holds children to higher standards of online behavior than that of most employers.

Look, I agree that parents need to parent. There is no question that parental role modeling has an impact on children’s attitudes about and use of screens. We know that setting limits has net positive benefits on children’s long-term health. And we know that a global pandemic has increased our screen use significantly, whether we wanted it to or not.

But while parents do have an important job here, shouldn’t schools also shoulder some of the responsibility for keeping our kids safe when they are “in school”? In the same way that we expect schools to hold active-shooter drills to keep our kids safe, shouldn’t we also expect those same adults to protect them from predators, porn, and online violence?

I am concerned that because children are now remote learning, SPS can further separate their responsibility for our children’s safety by dismissing it as “happening off campus” (when we’re all learning from home), or “because kids are misusing their devices” (again, why are we asking children to sign agreements that don’t take into consideration their developmental capabilities?), or “because it was on a personal device or platform” that the district isn’t responsible for moderating (a reason I am not providing my child with a device even if I can).

We all have to be adults here. Parents have to parent, teachers have to teach, and district administrators have to ensure the safety of all our students.

Sure, parents can check our children’s browsing histories every night. (Add that to our list of to-do’s right now.) But what remains clear and simple and yet totally overlooked is that by increasing our use of screen-based technology for remote learning, we have not really made anyone’s lives more convenient — we’ve shifted the burden of responsibility to parents to manage. And in a pandemic when we’re all, at best, overwhelmed, that is grossly unacceptable.

So What Can Parents Do?

It isn’t fair that parents will shoulder the bulk of the burden here, but since information is power, here are four things parents can do:

  1. Read carefully through the Student Use Agreement for your district.

  2. Ask your school leadership what they will be doing to support teachers and protect students.

  3. Accept a district-issued device for remote learning.

  4. Talk to your children about what to do when they see porn or violent content.

An Absurd Double Standard

Charlie’s experience as a student in Eanes ISD ended because the district refused to offer a non-iPad learning option for Charlie, so his parents pulled him out and moved to another district.

But the story doesn’t end there.

On August 24, 2020, at the start of a new school year, Eanes ISD, the same district that blamed Charlie for his Responsible Use Guidelines violations, sent an apology email to parents because a middle school Technology teacher had shared his screen with his students and on his desktop was an an icon for “Free Porn”. As middle schoolers are wont to do, the image was screenshotted and flew around the community where parents discovered and reported it.

Screenshot of Eanes ISD teacher’s desktop, KXAN News Austin (8/27/2020)

As of today, the district has taken no action.

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Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.