Schools throughout the country are learning more each year about the best ways to make computers available to students, both at school and for use at home.

Two years ago, the Natrona County School District opened school Internet access to include social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. But the district also bought software that monitors website traffic and allows the district to control how and when sites can be accessed.

All Natrona County students in grades six through 12 are now each issued a district-owned Apple laptop computer for use during the school year. But this year the district has decided to block social networking sites, both at school and when students take the computers home.

One of the reasons is that many parents have complained that their children were spending too much time on social networking sites and not using the computers for educational purposes.

Another concern of parents and educators is that social media websites can be used to perpetuate bullying of students.

Both concerns are valid, and we believe the schools have made the right decision to block such access. However, parents need to understand that such filters alone won’t solve all of the problems, and that they have a responsibility to monitor their children’s computer use.

And because social networking plays such an important role in today’s culture, and can also be abused for bullying and posting material that can be harmful, the subject must still be addressed by educators.

Many students are naive about their use of social networking and need to learn that once they post something on the Internet, it is there forever. Embarrassing images and texts can be viewed by family, friends, enemies, college officials and potential employers. Postings that may be intended as a prank or to amuse classmates can haunt them in their adult lives.

Nationally, the jury is still out about how increased access to computers is changing education. While some officials complain that test scores generally haven’t improved for students who use laptops leased by school districts, others contend that their use has helped improve students’ research and writing skills.

Some school districts have taken the same approach to social network sites as the Natrona County School District has, but officials should be realistic and realize that there is no shortage of ways for students to bypass the school-installed blocks. A quick Internet search revealed that students post ways to find proxy servers and also recommend software that reportedly can do the trick.

Educators in Maine, which has had student laptop take-home programs for the past decade, have learned that efforts to block websites often fail.

“We tried filtering. It’s a losing battle,” explained Peter Robinson, a principal in Auburn, Me., to the Lewiston Sun Journal. “There’s always a way around it. Now our approach is teaching responsibility.”

In class, Robinson said, teachers set boundaries and remind students that their job is school. “The teachers tell students it’s OK to check Facebook if they’re done with their work, but they must let them know they’re doing it,” he said.

Many students have access at home to social networking sites through a variety of other ways, including their own personal computers and smartphones. Instead of parents complaining about the amount of time their children spend on Facebook, parents should decide how much time they are allowed on such sites.

As one Maine parent told the Sun Journal, “Part of it is supervision. You don’t hand the keys to your car to your teenager without rules.”

School filters are a good idea, but they shouldn’t be the only tool that teachers and parents use to protect students from the damage that posting personal information on social networking sites can cause.

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