Problem

Problem: Google’s refusal to turn on safety features for Chromebooks distributed to schools has resulted in countless students being left exposed to sexually explicit material and sexual predators on their school-assigned devices. More than 40 million students and teachers worldwide were using these popular devices prior to the pandemic. Millions more received Chromebooks for virtual schooling during COVID-19. Instead of proactively keeping kids safe, this trillion-dollar tech giant chooses to place the burden on overwhelmed schools and parents while leaving children at risk.  

Solution: Google must default filtering and safety tools on Chromebooks for students to enable safe learning environments for online education. 


The urgency of COVID-19 and online learning: 

Latest available data has Google Chromebooks in the hands of 40 million students and educators worldwide, with 120 million using G Suite for Education. And these are pre-pandemic figures, before millions more Chromebooks were hastily purchased by schools for online learning during COVID-19.  In fact, it’s been reported that demand for Chromebooks more than doubled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Given Google’s extensive influence in our classrooms, the trillion dollar tech behemoth should be doing everything it can to support schools and parents in prioritizing children’s well-being. This means ensuring the devices they place in the hands of millions of minors are as safe and secure as possible – an even more critical need during virtual schooling.  Yet Google has refused to take simple measures that would significantly reduce kids’ exposure to pornography and predators. For this reason, Google Chromebooks is on the 2021 Dirty Dozen List. 

Google must help schools and parents protect kids by turning on student Chromebook filtering and safety tools as the default.  

Countless children harmed by pornography and predators: 

While better access to technology brings immeasurable benefits, it also brings increased risks. Even prior to the pandemic, we read countless news stories and received personal accounts of children easily accessing harmful material through their school-issued Chromebooks – at school and at home. Now, with overburdened school administrators and overwhelmed teachers and parents trying to navigate new technology tools and the challenges of virtual schooling, devices are often left insufficiently protected: leaving children even more vulnerable to accessing harmful material like pornography and being accessed themselves by predators.  

Read some examples from the past year:   

  • The Washington Post reported this past December on a 9-year-old-boy who accessed hundreds of pornographic sites through his school-issued Chromebook and who has suffered immensely: according to his parents he has shown a “profound change” in behavior in recent weeks — anxious, withdrawn and frequently angry. He does not want to participate in virtual lessons or connect with friends.” 
  • A family reached out to NCOSE about their young son who was groomed and exploited on his school-issued Chromebook, which allowed him to access social media and private browsing.  
  • A mother whose children received Chromebooks through a homeschooling institution shared: My own child was curious and found loopholes in our inadequate system of protections for her … She was groomed by online predators: teaching her how to get a fake credit card to pay for sites, telling her what they wanted to see, and nearly abducting her.  If this happened to my own child, who we love, who is homeschooled by me and we are actively involved in her life, then I can imagine this activity is rampant among the isolated, lonely children of America. 
  • A grandmother wrote to NCOSE that [her] grandson was caught by his mother using a school a Chromebook for pornography and games as well as communicating by email with adult women.  
  • One distraught mother wrote to an advice columnI don’t know what or how much he’s seen [on his school-issued Chromebook], but I do know that some of what he watched was wildly inappropriate and could be described as soft porn…Now I’m worried that he needs therapy (What did he see?!?) […] that his childhood is ruined.   

You can read more personal accounts and news articles here.  

While Google provides measures for parents (through Family Link) and for system-wide subscribers, like schools, to filter and prevent certain content on Google devices and platforms, parents and school IT administrators are often confused by the numerous steps required to turn them on, let alone monitor them. Sometimes schools install certain safety measures and not others – and parents often assume that the devices schools are handing out are completely safe. In other instances, schools lock-down Chromebooks in such a way that parents are unable to make any changes – including activating additional safety features – or they have to proactively contact the school to enable additional security (it took one of our researchers over a month to hear back from her district’s IT department).  

In worst case scenarios, districts don’t have the money for IT personnel or internet filters, teachers and parents are left at the frontlines of figuring out how to use and protect devices…Usually these are the schools that are severely underfunded and are serving the most marginalized populations: vulnerable populations already at disproportionate risk of being exploited that Google is leaving open to even further exploitation (thereby deepening structural racism and economic disparities). 

And not all school internet filters provide adequate protection (if they have filters at all). This means many devices are insufficiently protected at school, to say nothing of when the devices are brought home. And again, marginalized populations may not have the resources, time, education, or language capacity to purchase or install filters or figure out safety controls. As a result, students are using their school-assigned devices to access material like hardcore pornography or are coming across it accidentally. It is often only after an incident of sharing sexually graphic images with other students or suffering negative consequences of pornography exposure, that school administrators and parents realize the systems were not set up correctly.  

SOLUTIONS 

So what specifically can Google do to make Chromebooks safer for students? 

The bottom line is that there is absolutely no reason that Google can’t set safety features as the default for all users of their products, but certainly at a minimum these filters should be enabled on all Google Chromebooks (on the devices themselves and the Chrome operating system) given to K-12 schools. Instead of placing the burden on schools and parents to figure out how to keep their kids safer, let those who want to find pornography and other harmful material navigate the endless number of steps and complicated directions to turn off safety features. It should not be the sole responsibility of schools and parents to figure this out when Google – that is receiving exorbitant amounts of tax dollars in exchange for contracts with school districts and is profiting from pandemic school closures – can so easily make these default settings.  

It’s important to note, some settings are on the Chromebook devices themselves, while others are through the Chrome operating system designed by Google (Chrome OS) – the software on which Chromebooks run. Still others are at the Chrome browser level, the default search engine of Chrome OS.  

Confused yet? You’re not alone – and that’s exactly why we’re asking Google to make their products as safe and secure as possible from the get-go. 

Specifically, we are asking Google default the following on the devices and software used by students:  

  • TURN OFF “Enable Guest browsing” and TURN ON “Restrict sign-in(Chromebook device-level setting) 

Guest browsing is exactly as it sounds. It allows anyone – including your child – sign into the Chromebook with a different Gmail account. Chromebooks don’t keep the web history for guest browsing, therefore making it easier to hide web activity. “Restrict sign-in” should be defaulted to ‘on’ to again prevent any random Gmail addresses from being used on the device (note, if you are a parent creating a Family Link, you’ll need to “restrict sing-in” off until you pair your account to your child’s) 

  • SET SAFESEARCH AS DEFAULT (Chrome browser) 

SafeSearch is an effective filtering tool thatwhen a user or administrator turns it on, blocks most pornographic and explicit images, videos, and websites from Google Search results. We’re pleased that Google eventually placed the SafeSearch feature in more prominent, easier-to-find places in Google Images as we have asked them to do for years. However, we’d still like to see this option at the top Google Search and other search pages (e.g. “Videos” “News”) before a search is made. Unless a user proactively chooses this option in “Search Settings” before conducting a search, the SafeSearch button will not appear at the top level until a search has already been made. In other words, your screen (or your kid’s) may be covered with pornography before you even see the option to turn on “SafeSearch.”  

  • Disallow “INCOGNITO” MODE (in Chrome browser) 

Incognito mode in Google Chrome lets the user open a special browser window that won’t store a search or browser historyWe ask that Google create a clear way to disallow and lock incognito mode so kids can’t use it. Many minors know about this option (YouTube videos abound on how to access incognito mode on school-issued Chromebooks), so it’s critical schools and parents understand this option exists and have a way of disabling it. Luckily, if you’re set up with Family Link, your kids can’t use “incognito.” 

  • Fix SHARED DOCUMENT feature in G Suite for Education and Google Workspace (Formerly G Suite) 

Our ally Protect Young Minds alerted us to a very problematic feature that is not only frustrating to many adult users, but potentially dangerous for minors. If someone has your child’s email, they can share a document that will automatically be added to your child’s Google Drive. There is no request for permission to add and – even worse – it seems there is no way to delete it (or the way to do that is not easy to find). Furthermore, it could be used by predators to groom children as the document can serve as a means to “chat” with each other. One of our researchers tested this function with ther children’s school-issued laptop. She sent a document titled “kittens” which her children immediately opened. She chatted with them using this shared document. Unlike personal email addresses, most school-issued student emails follow a consistent format throughout the district. It wouldn’t be hard for a predator to very easily access a child this way just knowing first and last name. 

Not specific to Chromebooks, but an additional change we’d like to see is: 

  • RESTRICTED MODE ON YOUTUBE AS DEFAULT 

Restricted Mode is a YouTube filtering tool for YouTube to block explicit videos. Again, while we wish YouTube would default “Restricted Mode” for YouTube, it currently needs to be turned on and should be done so through Chrome OS or any available browser on student Chromebooks. We recommend that YouTube is completely blocked for elementary school kids, who can use YouTubeKids instead. (Family Link doesn’t allow kids until 13 to access YouTube). 

We know Google can make positive changes because they’ve done so. In August 2020 they made it possible for Family Link to add a school account. Earlier in spring 2020, after years of NCOSE pressure, the tech giant significantly reduced the extensive amount of pornography that populated basic searches unrelated to sex – including by students doing research. 

Of course, none of the above measures are foolproof. Kids are super savvy about bypassing safety features and filters – Reddit, Youtube, and Quora have countless tutorials by kids for kids on how to unlock school-issued devices and bypass parenting controls. Schools and families need to be monitoring their kids’ online activity, ensuring their online safety, and having ongoing conversations with them about the harms of pornography. But we need help from the major corporations, like Google, to make it harder …not easier…for kids to access harmful material. 

Demand digital safety in schools. Demand Google “do the right thing” and default safety tools and filters.  

Proof



Action

Send A Letter To Your School Board and Administration

Please use this template letter as a foundation and edit according to your situation to request more information from your school board and administration about what they are doing to protect their students from online risks and to encourage them to do more. While schools may be putting some safeguards in place, we have found that that information is usually not clearly communicated to parents and that—more importantly—most schools could be doing a lot more.

DOWNLOAD THE TEMPLATE BY CLICKING HERE

Sign the Letter: Tell Google To Make Chromebooks Safe for Students

Resources

The following sites are helpful resources for learning more about protecting and preparing kids to engage online.

Dirty Dozen List - Google Chromebook
2021 Dirty Dozen List Notification Letter

Updates

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Covid has laid bare many social truths—not least how truly essential our teachers and our schools are to the health and wellbeing of our children, our families, our communities. Parents and guardians across the nation developed a deeper appreciation for the many challenges our teachers face as they were thrust into the role of teacher…

Progress! Google Images Improves Search, Decreases Unwanted Porn Exposure

This time last year, Google Images, the site used by most people to find photos on the Internet, exposed children to countless graphic hardcore pornography images in less than 1 second, even for innocent or educational searches. Searches for basic anatomical terms did not yield scientific drawings but instead returned endless pages of images of…

7th Grade Girl Exposed to Porn on School Device

Excerpt from ky3 Some Springfield parents are concerned about inappropriate material that’s accessible on their children’s school-issued Chromebooks. They contacted KY3 News about those concerns, specifically that pornography being viewed by young children in an ad at the bottom of a web page. “I started teaching in public schools over 20 years ago, and for…

Google Images Returns Pornographic Results in Less Than 1 Second

When someone types a keyword into the search bar of Google Images, they don’t expect to see pornography and sexually explicit images on the first page of results. But unfortunately, despite some steps forward, that’s still happening. PROGRESS We thank Google for recently making a change we have long asked for–placing the SafeSearch option in…

Parents Outraged as 11-Year-Old Student Exposed to Porn on School Computer

Excerpt from wsoctv. Parents from Union County in North Carolina are furious after learning children were able to access pornography on their school-issued laptops in class. A mother called Channel 9 after two separate incidents at Parkwood Middle School, in Monroe, last week. The mother, who did not want to be identified, said her 11-year-old…

NCOSE confirms child erotica & pedo ring on YouTube. TAKE ACTION.

YouTube is a facilitator of child sexual exploitation by allowing a softcore pedophilia ring to flourish on their site. YouTube has consistently failed to take full responsibility for the cleaning up of this issue, often putting forward lackluster solutions. Spread the message that it’s time to #WakeUpYouTube. Advertisers like Walt Disney Co., Nestle, Fortnite, and AT&T…

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