Google is on a mission to teach children how to be safe online. That is the message behind âBe Internet Awesome,â a so-called digital-citizenship education program that the technology giant developed for schools.
The lessons include a cartoon game branded with Googleâs logo and blue, red, yellow and green color palette. The game is meant to help students from third grade through sixth guard against schemers, hackers and other bad actors.
Google plans to reach five million schoolchildren with the program this year and has teamed up with the National Parent Teacher Association to offer related workshops to parents.
But critics say the companyâs recent woes â including revelations that it was developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market and had tracked the whereabouts of users who had explicitly turned off their location history â should disqualify Google from promoting itself in schools as a model of proper digital conduct.
Among other things, these critics argue, the companyâs lessons give children the mistaken impression that the main threat they face online is from malicious hackers and bullies, glossing over the privacy concerns that arise when tech giants like Google itself collect usersâ personal information and track their actions online.
As an analysis of Googleâs curriculum published in Emerging Library & Information Perspectives, a graduate student journal at Western University in Ontario, put it, ââBe Internet Awesomeâ generally presents Google as impartial and trustworthy, which is especially problematic given that the target audience is impressionable youth.â
In a statement, Julianne Yi, who leads the Google program, said it had âproven useful to kids, teachers, and families around the world,â and was supported by, among others, the National P.T.A., the International Society for Technology in Education, Family Online Safety Institute.
Of those groups, Google is a national sponsor of the National P.T.A., a financial supporter of the Family Online Safety Institute, and a year-round mission sponsor of the International Society for Technology in Education, which promotes the use of technology in public schools.
Jim Accomando, the president of the National P.T.A., said that the organization âdoes not endorse any commercial product or service,â although companies that give money to the group may receive âpromotional consideration.â
âGoogle is a great example of a partner that aligns with our goals and they have deep tech knowledge that they bring to the table,â he said.
What Is the Program?
The cartoon game, Interland, offers an animated world âpresented by Google.â Children navigate spammers and hackers in âReality Riverâ and consider who in their social network can see what they post online on âMindful Mountain.â
The game, which comes with a lesson plan and classroom activities, is meant to teach children âthe fundamentals of digital citizenship and safety so they can explore the online world with confidence,â according to Googleâs site description. Once students learn skills like how to create strong passwords and not share information with strangers, the program encourages them to be âfearlessâ online explorers.
Kerry Gallagher, an assistant principal at St. Johnâs Preparatory School in Danvers, Mass., said Googleâs program helped students learn concrete ways to be safer and kinder online.
âRather than being a bystander, they feel as though they have the skills to interveneâ when they observe other children being mean online, Ms. Gallagher said. She added that younger students also gained a âbetter sense for who they should share things with and who they shouldnât, depending on what that content is.â
Ms. Gallagher also works as the kindergarten through 12th grade education director at ConnectSafely, a Silicon Valley nonprofit group that receives financing from Google. She said Google had paid for her air travel, lodging and meals to speak at events.
Educational Tool or Ad?
Googleâs name appears on every screen of Interland and the programâs certificates, which also incorporate Googleâs colors. The curriculum features cartoon robots that resemble the companyâs Android robot icon.
To some observers, the game is essentially a big ad for Google.
David Monahan, campaign manager at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy group, likened the program to asking Budweiser to talk to parents and children about underage drinking.
âThere is an increasing awareness of the fact that all these supposedly free platforms are not free and that all of us are being tracked and our information is really the commodity weâre paying,â Mr. Monahan said. âThis seems like the wrong time to be pushing resources that tell kids to be brave and fearless on the internet without telling them to be cautious and without giving them the information they really need.â
This month, Kevin Hodgson, a public-school teacher in Western Massachusetts, is teaching his sixth-grade class how to navigate the internet. Google materials are not part of the lesson plan.
Mr. Hodgson said the companyâs program offered students some important information, and he specifically cited the tips on how to create stronger passwords. But he said Google was defining privacy too narrowly by focusing on what users share, while failing to teach children how companies constantly track usersâ activities and amass their personal data to show them ads.
Mr. Hodgson said one practice he taught his students was how to change online default settings that are often preset to allow for maximum data collection by companies. He said he also taught students how to navigate online platforms that can feature negative user comments, like Googleâs YouTube, which he knows they use even though theyâre not supposed to. And he talks about privacy-preserving online tools, like the search engine DuckDuckGo, which does not track users around the web.
âWe are helping them become more knowledgeable about what the digital landscape is like,â Mr. Hodgson said of his students, âso they can make choices about what they use and what they donât use.â
Ms. Yi of Google said the company was aware that multiple efforts were needed to help children learn to navigate the digital world. In addition to âBe Internet Awesome,â she said, âWeâve also built products like Family Link, which lets parents supervise their kidsâ Google accounts; have hosted online safety school assemblies for years: and will continue to develop new tools and resources for kids, parents and educators.â
A History of Corporate Influence in Classrooms
American corporate giants are no strangers to the countryâs schools.
In the 1970s, General Motors circulated a free booklet in public schools that featured cartoon characters like âHarry Hydrocarbon,â who played down concerns about the health risks of industrial pollution and suggested that air pollution would soon not be a problem, according to a 1979 report, âHucksters In The Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda In Schools.â
In the 1990s, Procter & Gamble promoted its own curriculum, âDecision: Earth,â in schools. Among other things, it instructed children that synthetic diapers were no more harmful for the environment than cloth diapers.
Around the same time, the Campbell Soup Company sponsored a classroom kit called the âPrego Thickness Experiment.â According to a 1997 article in The New York Times, âCorporate Classrooms And Commercialism,â the kit was supposed to teach children the scientific method â by having them âproveâ that Prego pasta sauce was thicker than rival Ragu.
Critics see a similar self-serving agenda with âBe Internet Awesome,â which presents malicious third parties as the primary online threat to children, while failing to teach them how to navigate corporate data-mining practices.
“The best solution would be for this kind of training to be undertaken by an organization less invested in how consumers conceive of privacy on the Internet,” the authors of the journal article wrote. âAt the very least, âBe Internet Awesomeâ should have significantly less Google branding.â
Googleâs Emphasis on Education
Tech companies have been competing for years to win over young students as lifelong customers. In the past few years, Google has dominated the competition for classroom influence in the United States, outpacing rivals like Apple and Microsoft in the number of children who use its apps and laptops in schools.
It has taken the lead partly by developing useful products specifically for teachers and students, rather than simply repurposing its consumer or business tools for school use. Millions of students now use Google Classroom, a classroom-management system that allows teachers to assign and correct lessons online.
But even teachers like Mr. Hodgson, who uses Google tools with his students, are leery of the companyâs presence in schools.
âMaybe it has some good for the public if you use it in certain ways,â he said of the âBe Internet Awesomeâ program. But, he added, âit reinforces the footprint that Google already has and doesnât want to lose.â