RICHMOND, Va. -- A Richmond mother started an online petition, urging parents to double check the filter settings on computers issued by local school districts, after accessing videos on YouTube through her student’s RPS Chromebook that contained graphic and inappropriate content.
Janet Kelly, whose student attends a Richmond elementary school, was alerted by a staffer at the learning hub, where her student logs onto virtual school each day, that her child was spending hours watching videos instead of engaging with schoolwork.
"I got wind that he was looking at YouTube during the day,” Kelly said. “I was mostly concerned about the time, so I just got on his to see exactly how much time he had been spending on there.”
Kelly said her child was only watching videos of others playing video games or car crashes, but out curiosity, she checked to see what other content was available.
“I googled violent video games, I googled female anatomy, just to see what a curious 10th grader might find, for example,” Kelly said. “Google was tight, nothing really got through there, but YouTube was really where the problems were: hours and hours and hours of just graphic images that kids wouldn’t be able to see on television.”
CBS 6 viewed several of the videos Kelly was able to find but will not be publishing exactly what they contained, or the search terms used. The content that was viewable could be considered graphic in nature and/or inappropriate for younger children.
“I sent it to a friend who works at a law firm. It wouldn’t pass his law firm’s filter,” Kelly said. “I just thought, wow, I’m so glad I got ahead of this before my son got to that point.”
A spokesperson for RPS said all Chromebook issued to students contain filters to eliminate graphic or inappropriate content. RPS uses the online safety management tool Gaggle on all their student computers to review emails, attachments, and other files, according the the spokesperson. Gaggle then alerts the district about potential threats or inappropriate content.
Specifically on YouTube, RPS said the automated system on RPS Chromebooks restricts videos based off content for most, but not all, videos.
“We have restricted YouTube permissions to allow students access to instructional videos and classroom YouTube channels, as some teachers publish instructional videos for their students to view on this platform,” the spokesperson said.
Kelly brought her concerns to the attention of school officials over several months but decided to launch safescreensforstudents.com to alert parents to what she calls a loophole in the YouTube filter.
“I just think, one, there has to be better communication to parents about what exactly is accessible on these laptops. Secondly, there is other solutions. Teachers can share their screen and let a kid watch the video, instead of having a wide-open loophole a mac truck can drive through with graphic images,” Kelly said.
By the end of the calendar year, thousands of students in Central Virginia will have spent much of their school time learning online. The long-term effects of this kind of learning is still unknown, local education experts said.
“Research on screen time tells us that not all kinds of screen time are created equal. Educational content is better than some violent video games or other sorts of entertainment,” said. Dr. Jon Becker, with VCU’s School of Education.
“YouTube has some parental controls, but not every parent has the wherewithal or time and resourcefulness to engage with those controls,” Becker said. “Steve Jobs said, ‘computers are a bicycle for the mind.’ If you extend that analogy, if we put filters and restrains in place, we’re kind of putting training wheels on that bicycle.”
Beyond the type of content available for viewing, Becker said parents and educators need to be thoughtful about the long-term implications of online learning brought on by the pandemic and not by choice.
“We don’t have a lot of research really on what the effects are. I’m interested in seeing what the academic, psychological, and physical effects of learning in this way are for kids,” he said. “What’s also clear in the literature is that co-viewing is a positive way to think about it. Meaning, if your kids are going to be engaging in content online, television, if you can, have a seat next to them, talk about it, discuss what’s happening on the screen.”
Kelly admitted there might be a chance she is the only parent truly concerned about the videos she found but said other parents were also alarmed.
“I just want to make parents aware that it is accessible. That’s it. That’s all this petition is about,” Kelly said. “The lockdowns, those filters, just have to happen at the computer level.”
RPS said parents cannot change the filter settings on their student’s Chromebook but can add extra security measures on their home internet. Kelly pointed out that many Richmond parent do not have the means to do so.
RPS has internet safety resources available for their families here.
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