Commentary

Is Your Child Safe on the Internet?

Pornographers and other creeps go online to woo young victims. Protect your kids with these smart ideas from activist Donna Rice Hughes.

Most parents wouldn't dream of sending their child alone into a challenging new situation - the first day of kindergarten, a first trip to the corner store, day one behind the wheel of a car - without explaining what to expect and setting rules. Nor would a loving mother drop her kid off in Times Square to hang out by himself for a few hours. Yet all across America, moms and dads are so unaware of the dangers that lurk on the Internet - potential contact with pornographers and predators who prey on the young - that they provide no guidance at all. In fact, many parents don't realize how corrupt some Web content is; there are sites that show explicit sex acts with animals and children, as well as the rape, torture and mutilation of women. Kids can easily - and innocently - stumble upon these images (many of which are free), as well as incorrect sex information, hate speech and other inappropriate material.

Think that your child is safe if you don't have Internet access at home? Don't be fooled. Kids will gain access to cyberspace at school, the library or a friend's home. The Internet has become the most popular playground for children of the 90's. But in this recreation area, any adult can mingle freely and anonymously with unsupervised minors.

How can you keep everything that is wonderful about this new technology - the ability to view soil on Mars up close, for example, or tour the Library of Congress, get homework help from experts, chat with faraway relatives - and still screen out the bad elements?

Follow these 12 tips.

Learn Internet basics so everyone in your family can speak the same language. Otherwise, it may be difficult to safeguard your kid online and set up rules. If you have no computer experience, of course, you'll feel intimidated about going online. Take a deep breath - surfing the Net is easier than you might think! In fact, this is a perfect opportunity for your child to teach you something. Almost every kid today has computer lessons in school. And many libraries and community centers offer free help.

Spend time online alongside your child.
If you don't have Internet access at home, go to the library. Watch how your child surfs to locate a subject, asks questions, exchanges opinions and weighs decisions. Just as you're aware of your child's strengths and weaknesses with homework, on the sports field and in the school band, knowing her online habits will help you steer her toward positive outcomes. This awareness will also build trust and increase parent-child communication.

Put the computer in a central area of your home, such as the family room. It's easier to monitor your child's activities if the computer isn't behind a closed door. And limit online time just as you should curtail a child's video-game and TV use. Being glued to a machine for long periods gets in the way of important face-to-face interaction with family and friends.

Don't let your child give out personal information.
Tell your youngster to never offer his name, age, address, phone number, school, town, photo, computer password or schedule without your permission. Nor should he fill in questionnaires or forms, enter contests or register for clubs. Such data can be used by pedophiles and others. Make up screen names. Also tell your child not to open a site or link that costs money without your permission.

Always have open arms - and listening ears.
Your child needs to believe that she can confide in you - without being blamed or having the Internet banned. Ask your youngster these questions: Have you met anyone online whom you don't know? Has anyone asked you for personal information? Or wanted to meet you in person? Has anyone talked dirty? Have you seen pornographic pictures? Compliment your child on her honesty. Remember, vulnerable kids are those with low self-esteem and little parental support.

Stay on top of your child's e-mail habits.
Don't allow correspondence with people your child does not personally know. If your youngster receives an uncomfortable or upsetting e-mail, tell her to ignore the sender, immediately end the communication and contact you or another trusted adult right away.

Regularly ask about your child's online friends and activities.
Be as aware of these as you would of their buddies at school or in the neighborhood. Stay involved.

Supervise your child's chat-room activity.
Even if it is actively monitored by your Internet service provider (ISP), the company through which you access the Internet, you should still keep tabs on cyber talk. America Online is one ISP that monitors kids-only chat rooms.

Forbid your kid from meeting anyone he's talked to online unless you're present. Explain that in cyberspace, some bad adults can fool kids by pretending to be children too, and that once a "friendship" is formed and personal information obtained, these strangers may attempt to set up real-life encounters.

Install protective software.
The easiest way to block porn and other questionable material is to choose an ISP that provides a parental-control feature or filtered Internet access. If your service provider doesn't have this option, you can buy filtering software through the Internet or at a computer-software store. But keep in mind that filtering isn't 100 percent effective. Savvy, curious kids may be able to get around safety software.

Be attuned to negative changes in your child's behavior.
If he mentions adults you don't know, becomes unusually secretive, hides disks, voices inappropriate sexual knowledge or experiences major sleeping difficulties, consider these to be red flags and seek professional counseling. If you suspect sexual abuse, contact your physician and police immediately.

Establish away-from-home Internet rules, too.
Encourage safety precautions at the school and library; when a kid has unrestricted Internet access, he is at risk. If you can't ensure his safety, consider not letting your child use those computers. Speak up! Rules should also apply when your youngster visits friends' homes that have Internet access.