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As schools around the country have rolled out one-to-one computer initiatives, handing out tablets and laptops to their students, a sour note has often intruded on the triumphant fanfare heralding these programs. Within days, even hours, of the devices’ distribution, their young users have figured out how to circumvent the filters meant to block access to games, social networking, and other non-educational activities (not to mention offensive or inappropriate content).

In Greenwood, Ind., hundreds of students managed to reprogram their school-issued tablets on the same day they received them. In Los Angeles, where the school district has begun giving out a planned 600,000 i-Pads, entrepreneurial students sold a workaround to classmates for $2 a pop. And in Cherry Hill, N.J., a middle school pupil had a ready answer when his father, Thom McKay, asked him how he got on Facebook even though his school had banned it. ”Pretty easy, Dad,” his son replied, as quoted in The New York Times. ”Don’t be an idiot. We know more about computers than the teachers do.”

Even as students are reveling in their ability to evade their schools’ Internet blocks, teachers are growing frustrated that they can’t get around those same firewalls (perhaps confirming the middle schooler’s acerbic observation). Educators’ online forums and Twitter accounts are filled with complaints that inflexible filters prevent them from using computers in creative and innovative ways in their classrooms. YouTube videos of famous speeches, Skype conversations with experts outside the school, collaborative tools that would allow students to annotate a shared text: access to such resources is cut off, teachers lament, by heavy-handed Internet controls.

School librarians, too, have joined the fray, mounting a moral crusade against the filters. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has named an annual “Banned Websites Awareness Day,” drawing an explicit comparison between blocked websites and that righteous cause of freethinkers, censored books.

Since students are sidestepping them, teachers feel thwarted by them, and librarians are decrying their “overly restrictive filtering,” shouldn’t we consider knocking down school firewalls altogether?

It’s a question that applies to most American schools; 98 percent filter the online content available to students, according to a national longitudinal survey conducted by the AASL. The Children’s Internet Protection Act, passed by Congress in 2000, requires public schools that receive broadband access at a federally discounted rate (that’s almost all of them) to protect young people from online content that is obscene or otherwise “harmful to minors.” Nervous school administrators have additional reasons to install the filters: worries about cyber-bullying, security breaches, illegal file sharing, scammers and spammers.

The survey by the school librarians’ association, however, points to a less lurid reason to restrict students’ access to the web: according to the AASL, schools’ top three filtered content areas are social networking sites, instant messaging and online chatting, and games. Such activities aren’t (necessarily) inappropriate or illegal, but they are big honking distractions, and if we want our young people to learn anything during the school day, they must be kept away from these sites.

A growing body of evidence from cognitive science and psychology shows that the divided attention typical of people engaging in “media multitasking”—the attempt to pay attention to two or more streams of information at once—produces shallower, less permanent learning. And let’s not kid ourselves: when students are free to roam the Internet in class or in study periods, divided attention is the result.

Is it possible to use Facebook and Twitter in educationally appropriate ways? Sure—but as technology and education specialist Michael Trucano points out, tech enthusiasts often focus on what’s possible to the exclusion of what’s predictable and what’s practical. What is predictable is that young people, given the chance, will use the web for social and entertainment purposes; what’s practical is to remove that temptation during the school day. Even successful professional adults often need to tie themselves to the mast to get hard work done in the face of the Internet’s endless enticements: novelists like Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith have said publicly that they use software that restricts their access to the web while they’re writing.

Proponents of loosening school Internet filters often insist that educators have to “meet students where they are” — that is, in a world utterly saturated by technology. Actually, that saturation is an argument in favor of tightening students’ access to tech, of supplying in their formal education what they are not getting in their digitally dominated “informal education.”

As UCLA professor Patricia Greenfield has written, “The informal learning environments of television, video games, and the Internet are producing learners with a new profile of cognitive skills. This profile features widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills, such as iconic representation and spatial visualization.” (By “iconic representation,” she means the ability to understand the symbolic meaning of pictorial images like the icons that dot our computer screens.)

Greenfield continues: “Formal education must adapt to these changes, taking advantage of new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence and compensating for new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes: abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We need, says Greenfield, to help students “develop a complete profile of cognitive skills”—and doing so requires time away from screens.

Critics of school firewalls also claim that they create a contrived and artificial environment, ill suited to preparing students for the “real world” beyond such barriers. But, of course, the purpose of school is to be just such a protected place, set off from the rest of society. We create special physical spaces and staff them with special people—teachers—in order to train young people to handle the untrammeled “real world” in a thoughtful way.

We also employ teachers to guide students’ attention to what is important, which is why the school librarians’ likening of blocked websites to banned books is in most cases absurd. A blocked social-networking site is less like a censored text and more like a teacher who tells students to stop passing notes and focus on their work. When Internet-connected computers are passed out, educators must continue—indeed, redouble—such efforts to direct students’ attention in fruitful, productive ways. This crucial responsibility should not be handed over to IT staff or school district lawyers—or worse, to software manufacturers who’ve never met a school’s faculty or students.

Internet filters are one conduit, albeit an imperfect one, through which educators convey their sense of what is meaningful and valuable to know. They represent a series of judgments and decisions, which ought to be made (though often are not) in a communal fashion. Teachers and administrators together should give careful thought to what is let inside the school walls and what is kept out, to what they view as enlightening and what they deem ephemeral. These choices should be integrated into a curriculum that instructs students on how to engage safely and effectively with the Internet, on how “to use the filters sitting on their shoulders,” as web expert Nancy Willard puts it. And, finally, schools’ web controls must be at least as smart as the most mischievous members of the student body—so that educators’ considered choices aren’t undone in a moment by ingenious but still-undeveloped kids.

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Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer; the author of two previous books, The Cult of Personality and Origins; and the creator of the popular Brilliant Blog. A contributing writer at Time magazine,...

Letters to the Editor

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  1. This article misses the point. It’s fearmongering and control-driven and feeds the ‘kids these days are bad’ narratives that are so prevalent in older generations.

    The myth of ‘digital natives’ has been busted time and time again. Research is very clear that while our students are increasingly savvy at using technology for gaming and social purposes, they’re not very good at using technology for academic and other productive work purposes. Of course they will not get good at using technology in these ways if we block the technologies instead of using them in productive, empowering ways.

    Unlike what is stated here, the ‘real world’ is digital. The real world is technology-suffused. People everywhere use social media and other online tools all the time to accomplish their work. How are schools supposed to prepare students for our new technology-infused information, economic, and learning landscapes in analog school environments?

    The issue here is not the technology but rather our unwillingness as educators and citizens (and pundits) to rethink learning, teaching, and schooling. As my supervising principal said every day of my administrative internship, ‘Classroom management stems from good instruction.’

  2. I totally agree with you Scott. We must teach students appropriate digital citizenship and then how to use technology to their educational benefit. For the most part, students will do the right things. Will some misuse it? Of course, but students have misused the educational tools they’ve had forever. It is not a new concept, but a new tool. Educators must stop taking the “easy” way out a start educating students in the manner in which they now learn.

  3. I found it interesting that student use of their personal cell phones or smart phones was never mentioned. Battening down the hatches does nothing to keep kids off of social media sites during the day if they have a smart phone. This is exactly why I fought to unblock all of the sites in my school. We were only fooling ourselves.

  4. I really enjoyed the article. As a computer teacher I agree that blocking websites is very much like doing kids from passing notes. I also see the point of view of censorship, but I don’t agree. As much as I hate seeing a blocked screen, it’s important to shelter or kids from some of the very adult content that’s on the web.

    I am always on my feet, moving around the room so I can keep an eye on my wanderers.

  5. I enjoyed the article . I am an ict theacher and I agree blocked pages are rally annoying at hassenbrook most Christmas websites are blocked

  6. I am still in school and I don’t understand why they are doing this!!! So, there is this app that teachers let us use, about math and other informational stuff, but they still block it. You know what, some kids are the nicest kids ever, but sometimes they just want to play a game or something TO DO!!!! These people that do this make no sense what so ever. And I know some games you can chat with people around the world, but you have to at least at some point trust the students that they won’t do anything bad or anything weird! Just my point is, give the students a break!

  7. I agree with kiki,some websites/games are not bad.The teachers don’t always block the things,its the school.Sometimes Schools or teachers don’t give liberty to students to be kids and show their talents.Most of students are good in designing games,websites,streaming,and even playing video games like me.Schools should let students have freedom,blocking websites will only stress out the students more and it will make school look boring.Students need their time to do the things the love the most. Please,if your a teacher or a school administar,Please let students have heir freedom. Stay strong during the pandimic

  8. I agree with kiki and zero because it is not fair to block fandom on school or youtube or any other websites. Fandom is a website where you read wikis about other stuff and information. And it is not fair for teachers to use iBoss to block other websites. Or youtube when you need to go to youtube on online school but you can not visit the website cause it is blocked. Good thing we have youtube at home. And everytime kids visit a website it says reset or blocked. So I agree with kiki and zero.

  9. Thanks Amaya for agreeing with us and for supporting our statements,hope your doing well and hopefully schools listen to us and agree with us.

  10. I cannot believe the things school blocks. I’m at 6th grade, and they have blocked Quora, a great website that can get student so much help. Schools just don’t understand kids or the world around them today. Our school system is designed around industrial age values, and provides no room for creativity whatsoever.

  11. It is not fair to block youtube nexflix and other game and things it is not fair to block things because we can’t do everything if you block thing for us block things for teachers as well.

  12. I really think that its so annoying getting games and other social media services blocked, its just like you know, we all feel trapped, we dont exactly have the right to do anything. The schools should tRuSt students.. I mean its not exactly teachers’ fault- I mean yea there is some innapropriete or offensive content all around, but schools should only block those. They shouldn’t be blocking other innocent and fun websites, and should’t be blocking pictures. (unless ofc, if their non appropriete)

  13. I partly agree, and partly disagree. I understand schools block explicit and malicious sites to keep students safe online, but if you ask me, that’s a pretty dumb move. Some kids are very good at school, and deserve a break instead of more fat stacks of schoolwork. I got straight A’s in 4th grade, so my teacher let me play games, and guess what? Securly (the site they use) blocked coolmathgames, the only game I trust that is safe. IT’S RELATED TO SCHOOL!!! SCHOOLS, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT KIDS NEED A BREAK FROM YOUR WORK, GIVE THEM A BREAK! Blocking sites only makes the students more stressed, and as a result, will get mad at teachers and may not participate. So schools are getting to opposite of what they want. Now why I disagree. Schools are where we go to learn, so while we are at it, schools try to keep us safe. I don’t mind schools blocking explicit cites and other sites that promote bad things like suicide. Some students are stressed on not concentrating on their work, mainly because they focus on games and other things like social media. Some kids are getting mad at schools for blocking the games they play, but they don’t understand schools are trying to keep them safe. We don’t know if the game is bad. I disapprove and approve this message.

  14. ok bro why are you blocking EVERYTHING. like youtube, comics, and almost everything so… schools need to let us have freedom to do stuff that we want so we can enjoy stuff!

  15. i agree with you Emilio why can’t the students have some free time and mess around on youtube or read funny comics see i’m in 4th grade and my school has blocked youtube now so yeah we need freedom and what if we want to draw or read some other stuff and what if we want to play online games like slither.io or agar.io or hole.io and i understand why the teachers block those sites because “its to inappropriate” ok first of all HOW are those sites inappropriate so let the kids have a brake please!

  16. why can’t the students have some free time and mess around on youtube or read funny comics see i’m in 4th grade and my school has blocked youtube now so yeah we need freedom and what if we want to draw or read some other stuff and what if we want to play online games like slither.io or agar.io or hole.io and i understand why the teachers block those sites because “its to inappropriate” ok first of all HOW are those sites inappropriate so let the kids have a brake please!

  17. More and more websites are being blocked and you can just see from the timeline of comments how it has changed drastically. They go so far do block textbook sites at my school because there is apparently file storage. It is ridiculous. At first, they only blocked a couple of games and there were ways to get around it. Through the year more and more sites get blocked and at first, they were only blocking things that made sense like proxies, VPNs and games, but now they are blocking anything and everything from forums to like I said “file storage” it sounds like they are just throwing up excuses to block things and it is unfair.

  18. But like stop blocking stuff you even block gamest that are unharmful. You block youtube like what is that for? Like unblock some stuff dang. We can’t have a little fun

  19. my school literally just blocked drednot.io every other io game was blocked last year. also does anyone know how to build a lego godzilla (miniature) plz

  20. grrr i love manyland i play it day and night but somehow the stupid school blocked them and i’m like … i’ll try again probably glitching but no it was NOT i was like OMG maybe i can shut down my cpu but it aint working i hate school so much we can not have fun all my class can play is dumb prodigy it does not help me learn t ALL and i’m like may you please unblock manyland or tamming.io or fly or die or defly.io or like oooooooo kkk i have youtube but some of you don,t and i’m so very sorry for you like if i have youtube so can they i’m like UGH i quit so i had boring games for the rest of my school days but don,t worry ill be fine but im more worried about you but i guess contentkeeper is not gonna stop so SORRY 🙁 ;( *SNIFF VERRRRRRRY LOUD*so loud* im crying like i need to find out stuff *SNIFFS AGAIN AND SNEEZES SUPER LOUD* GAMES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER *CRIES* AND *SNIFF* AND HELPS PEOPLE UNDERSTAND WHAT ITS LIKE TO PLAY WITH *SNIFF* YOUR FAMILY sorry i am sniffing and crying and sneezing a lot

  21. manyland is the best unfortunately they blocked it ;( 🙁 manyland brings people together whhhhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

  22. PLZ I WANT JUST FREEDOM CUZ THE CPCSC ARE GETTING EXTREME TO US THEY KEEP BLOCKING AS THEY WERE STARTING TO INFECT US AND THEY BLOCKED modd.io , red-ball4.com ,AND MY FAVORITE TO WATCH IS YOUTUBE!!!

  23. nobody: schools with firewalls:
    HIPPITY HOPPITY YOUR FUN IS NOW NOTHING
    coolmath games: am I a joke to you?

  24. I am a student myself, and I have bypassed this so many times! It’s too easy. All you need is a VPN extension, and you can access anything!

  25. Do you know that you can’t play educational sites my school blocked hooda math a educational site for kinder-garden to 8th grade. But its useless if you have a phone/pc you can play the blocked games I understand most of the blocks but not all.

  26. All of this is true. Censoring the internet isnt helping us in the long run. Its just going to teach us to circumvent the rules and that’s not the goal. The mindset of school systems are from the freaking 1800s. (I’m in 9th grade)

  27. I agree with you all. I am a in 6th grade and the school districts are not getting it. In these days everyone has a phone or a laptop so, there is no point in blocking things and besides teachers are always watching students. students work all day and get tired why can’t you let them play games to have some free time. nobody likes to just work and not play right? everyone needs to rest and have some enjoyment. we as students know that the internet isn’t bad but, some may be inappropriate we will all find out in the end because humans are too complicated like the bible says, we should be like newborn babes that have a pure heart. Our hearts are deceiving and we need to ask god to wash out sins away and cleans us from all unrighteousness. hope you get my point.

  28. As a student, I can understand the reasons behind these blocks; however, they prevent us from having fun even during our free time. They should be loosened when we’re on our own time so we can actually do someething.

  29. My school uses google g-suites for stuff. Around February of 2021 they blocked google maps! Since then there have been assignments with locate this city that you can’t do!

  30. blocking stuff is pointless, it will just make kids try harder to figure out a way to unblock stuff.in what way, shape or form would a literal CHILD look up something bad it just pisses me off because i went to a school that didn’t have any homework and when kids would go home (my school let us take the computers home) and want to play stuff and they cant with blocked stuff. so annoying 😒

  31. They blocked websites this year for my art classes and my art teacher was a little mad at the administrator >:(
    I think blocking things used for art class is ENTIRELY stupid and blocking sites for any class is a mega OOF!

  32. I just want to play one game and that is all but nope.They think its bad but cant they at least unblocked a couple of games and websites for summer.

  33. BRUHHHH blocking youtube to BRUV school systems nowadays still use their stuff from the 1870’s,STOP IT’S THE 21st CENTURY. although it is uh KINDA CRINGE also it even blocked cool math games

    Schools: Blocks Coolmath

    The students: laughs in evading the blocks

    get rekt schools epic break time. (P.S I use a lot of memes when i message so uhh yeah,also I’m doing this for my 10th grade brother and myself) THEY block everything even the ones that aren’t harmful.

  34. why did you block are school computer it made us more sad and you blocked gaming videos what are we going to watch what if we have nothing at home and we want to play a game and its blocked so we are going to sit down all day but we cant go out side because we live in a bad neighborhood and we are stuck in are house all day and we turn bad in school that’s why i think school needs to unblock are computers

  35. Its not fair to students who actually need a break from all the work you’re assigning. Inappropriate things and graphic things you can block. Deal with the actual students looking that stuff. Even my google front page wallpaper is blocked. I bet you teachers think you won, haven’t you. Think again.

  36. Yeah i’m in 6th grade and all I want is to use things like Quotev and Picrew! I wanna read fanfiction, do quizzes, create picrews, and talk to my online bestie in my freetime. I mostly only use these things at home. I used to use them when I had freetime in school as well. Last year, I came home and did my chores. I got myself a water and went to my room to talk to my online best friend. I’ve known her for about a year now. We have a lot in common. But when I opened Quotev, I saw that it was blocked! Luckily, I found Quotev on my tablet. A few months ago, another online friend of mine showed me picrew. I love it! I later showed it to my irl friend who I’ve known since first grade and she became almost addicted to it! She has 73 picrews- yeah, it’s a lot. However, I was on it a few days ago when I closed my chromebook aqnd went downstairs for some lunch, along with ice cream ^w^. When I came upstairs, picrew was blocked. I got really stressed because my tablet had not been working and my mom wont allow me to have a phone. I was also upset thinking about my friend who loves picrew even more than I do. The fact that school has already been stressful since two of the teachers have been very rude to me. I know for a fact that one of them just despises me and I feel the same about her. This is awfully long, and I apoligize. I just want Quotev and Picrew to be unblocked! I not only want to read stories that aren’t published as real book, I want to write my own for others to enjoy! The site doesn’t even ask ti have any personal information from you. Same with Picrew. Therefore, I don’t understand why they have been blocked. To those who have read this, I’m sorry for wasting your time. I also apoligize that I mostly just ranted about my life. I tend to do that-heheh. Anyways- Goodbye! I hope you have a good day/night. 🙂

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