photo © 2006 D. Sharon Pruitt | more info (via: Wylio)
Earlier this week Miguel Guhlin shared on his blog this question: Is it ethical for a teacher to have a student lie about his or her age when signing up for a website? My first thought is why not? The 13 year old age restriction before being allowed to sign up for a site is almost the Internet version of removing a mattress tag or maybe following the 55 mile per hour speed limits on Interstate Highways. Yes, its the law but is it really strictly enforced? The age restriction was placed by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 otherwise known as COPA. This federal law says that websites cannot collect information on children under the age of 13 without parental consent. This law also says that children under the age of 13 cannot be marketed to via electronic means such as email. Instead of taking measures to protect children and obtain parental permission, most sites just forbid children under the age of 13 from signing up for a service as part of the terms of service. If a child is found to have violated the terms of service by signing up then the company will terminate the account. The purpose of the law was not to prevent children from signing up for websites or email, it was to prevent information to be collected and used to market to children. However, most people interpret the law that signing up a child without parent permission or violating the terms of service is illegal. Not true.
Now back to the original question, is it unethical for a teacher to get a child to lie about their age to sign up for a website? Yes. However, do we as teachers do unethical things to get our jobs done? All the time. One of my grad school professors said that "teachers need to be great thieves." We usually have to do unethical things all the time to get our job done. Is it ethical to ask parents to bring in tissues, hand sanitizer, and other items on a supply list because the school does not have the budget to provide those items? We would be upset if we went to have surgery and the surgeon told us that we needed to bring the surgical instruments? Still could we be held accountable and risk our professional career if we had a student sign up for a site against a parent's wishes? Yes again. This is why I always recommend that teachers inform parents about what they plan to do using the Internet. My students have to have an acceptable user policy (AUP) signed by themselves and their parents. If a parent does not wish for their child to participate in an activity then I have to find an alternative assignment. Does that cover me ethically? I think so because I made a reasonable effort to inform parents of my intentions but others may disagree. In may way of thinking, in order to teach students how to use the Internet safely, students need to use the Internet.
However, Miguel's post and discussions gave me pause and food for thought. Where are websites that are appropriate for children under 13 years old that can be used in schools for educational purposes. Sadly, I could not think of one so I created one but I need your help. I created a wiki called Sites for Younger Students where we can enter links to websites that are appropriate for younger children. Anyone can edit the page but I do ask that you enter the link and give a brief description of what the site does. Please make sure the sites are educational or can be used for an educational purposes. Also, please share the link to this wiki because I am sure there are many elementary and middle school teachers looking for sites that can be used in their classes. Thank you for helping out with this project because working together we can help all children.
Update: Miguel updated his discussion with some useful information. You can read it here.