Opinion

Keeping children safe online

The Internet age presents a new range of public health and safety concerns that require awareness and involvement.

Posted Dec. 25, 2006.

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Danger lurks on the Internet. And the need to protect children and young people who use the Web has become increasingly obvious.

Recent segments on NBC's "Dateline" detailing the ease in which adult sexual predators link with kids in cyberspace underscore why action is necessary.

But juxtapose these reports with the image of a teenager huddled in a library, collecting a wealth of health data for a term paper or researching sensitive health information online because he or she is too embarrassed to ask certain questions out loud.

Both of these -- the predator scenario and the enormous potential educational benefit -- reflect the reality of the Internet today. They also illustrate why it is important to find the right level of protection.

After all, according to an American Medical Association Board Report on the subject, an estimated 87% of young people ages 12 to 17 use the Internet. This number includes 82% of those 12 to 14 years old and 92% of those 15 to 17. Eleven million of these young people go online daily.

And this can be frightening when considered in the context of the following statistics: One in five young people using the Internet receive an online sexual solicitation every year, and 29% of kids will freely give out their home addresses if asked.

The result is a need to take appropriate action. And that's exactly what the AMA did in November when its House of Delegates approved that board report. It sets out a course for future advocacy efforts to protect children from dangers they might encounter along the information superhighway. Before this, the AMA had in place at least 30 policies related to the Internet but none to protect young people from its darker side.

For starters, the new AMA policy supports the use of Internet filters to block harmful materials from computers children use. But it also recognizes a central challenge. Restrictive filtering can decrease access to helpful health-related information with only modest improvement in blocking graphic content. Thus, the AMA emphasizes the importance of carefully setting filters so the bad is culled while the worthwhile remains accessible.

The Association's advocacy effort also will support federal legislation that restricts Internet access to pornographic materials in designated public institutions where children and youth may use the Internet.

But even with such screens, it is almost inevitable that young people still might encounter sites or contacts that are obscene, indecent or even pornographic.

The AMA addresses that concern by making clear that safe and beneficial use of the Internet by minors requires programs that have strong educational impact on children. To that end, it supports school-based efforts that teach children effective thinking, learning and safety skills related to Internet use. The AMA also is a partner in the iKeepSafe Coalition, a nonprofit organization that seeks to teach basic rules of Internet safety to children and parents.

And finally, maximizing the Internet's potential while minimizing its danger will require the attention of physicians. They can help raise parental awareness and provide simple strategies for reducing media time and limiting exposure to negative content. They also can support school-based efforts or targeted campaigns that teach media literacy to children.

This overall course of action recognizes the positive role of the Internet in providing health information to children and youth. It also acknowledges the negative role it can play in connecting children and youth to predators and exposing them to child pornography. Success requires attention at many levels -- from the public policy arena to schools and also to individuals. The resulting awareness and understanding will go a long way in helping to keep our children safe while keeping essential information available to them.

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External links

AMA Board of Trustees Report 10, "Internet Child Pornography: Protecting Children and Youth Who Use the Internet," 2006 Interim Meeting, November (link)

Internet Keep Safe Coalition (link)

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