The Positives and Perils of the Internet: Working Together to Make Your Family's Online Experience Safe and Fun

Our children typically know far more than we do about this new technology we call the Internet. While we're still trying to figure out how to set that annoying clock on our VCR, our children are clicking their way to exciting new worlds that didn't even exist when we were their age. In addition, many of our computer-literate children have been exposed already to the benefits-and the dangers-of the Internet.

There are many benefits to the Internet for your child. Access to the Internet can improve your child's reading skills by providing interesting materials to read and suggesting additional reading. As children use the Internet to connect with places around the world and exchange mail with electronic pen pals, they can learn about other cultures and traditions. Your children can use the Internet to access libraries around the corner or around the world and to specific collections of information and reference materials.

However if your child has full access to the Internet, you should not be without concern. With unrestricted access, any child with a computer and a modem can access pornographic material in seconds, and once it's been seen, the pornography can never be entirely erased from the mind. Just as disturbing as the pornography itself is the difficulty in protecting children from those people who have a sexual appetite for children and who search for victims through conversations with unsuspecting kids on the Internet.

With all the pros and cons of the Internet, you the parent should not feel you are without options. Child protection technology is abundant, but information on determining which technology is appropriate for your home and how to implement each tool is less plentiful and a bit more difficult to understand. I want to help you become comfortable with the tools available to you and your family and to encourage you to choose the tools that are right for your "digital toolbox." You can implement responsible safeguards, ensuring that your children will have safe, educational, and entertaining online experiences. Educate yourself about cyberspace. Raise your awareness of the benefits as well as the risks of going online.

Most of us find it difficult to talk to our children about sex in general, let alone the harmful effects of pornography. We want to protect the innocence and purity of childhood for as long as possible. Yet children need to know why certain rules about the computer and their access to the Internet exist. They may be less likely to violate the rules if they are told the truth about why they are not allowed to see everything on the Internet. We can begin to educate our children about protecting themselves from dangers in cyberspace.

How can the Internet become safe for my child, my family, and future generations? The answer lies in a shared responsibility among the public (parents, educators, librarians, and others who supervise children), the high-tech industry, and law enforcement. Each provides a layer of protection and security for the safety of kids online. And whenever one of these entities endeavors to accept its responsibility for child safety online, we need to affirm and support those efforts.

For the Internet to survive as well as fulfill its potential as the communications vehicle of the future, it must achieve mainstream acceptance. As one of the most important developments in the history of communications, the Internet must become a safe and worthwhile medium for all users. There are many issues that confront this new medium. I want to challenge you to work alongside those of us at the grass roots as well as at the national and international levels, who are seeking solutions that will ensure a safe and secure Internet that will truly reach its wonderful potential. Protecting our children on the Internet is a shared responsibility! You are not powerless, and you are not alone!

Of the many solutions available on the market, I recommend to concerned parents the selection of a server based filter, or parental controls offered by an ISP.Server-based solutions are less likely to be circumvented by a computer-savvy child and are updated at the server, putting less pressure on you. Remember, however, that most blocking software, even when it is implemented at the server, cannot completely block inappropriate content. If your child will be online when you're not present, be sure your child understands and complies with your house rules.

Currently the only way to achieve 100 percent safety is through a closed secure system. Unlike filters or blocking software, closed systems allow young children access only to those preselected Internet sites that have been determined appropriate for young children. Closed systems lock children out of the Internet rather than locking inappropriate content on the Internet away from children. Some filter providers also offer a closed system option.

Summary of Safety Tips for Children

* Never fill out questionnaires or any forms online or give out personal information.
* Never agree to meet in person with anyone you have met online.
* Never tell anyone online where you will be or what you will be doing without Mom and/or Dad's permission.
* Never respond to or send e-mail to new people you meet online.
* Never send a picture over the Internet or via regular mail to anyone you've met on the Internet.
* Never respond to any belligerent or suggestive contact or anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
* Always tell Mom and/or Dad about something you saw that is upsetting.

Summary of Safety Tips for Parents

* Become more computer literate and develop Internet savvy.
* Place your computer in an area of your home where you can easily monitor your child's Internet activity.
* Talk with your kids about their online friends and activities.
* Do not let your kids in chat rooms. There is currently no method to detect a disquised predator that may be lurking quietly in a chat room.
* Implement parental controls available on your online service, install protective software on your home computer, or use a filtered ISP.
* Monitor the amount of time your child spends on the Internet
* Establish online rules and an agreement with your child about Internet use while at home or away from home.
* Watch for changes in your child's behavior (mention of adults you don't know, secretiveness, inappropriate sexual knowledge, sleeping problems, etc.).