Safe Surfing

The world, and everything in it, is truly just a mouse click away and it's not three-way calling that keeps our kids connected to their friends anymore. Rather, it's text messages, email and instant messaging programs that have become the communication methods of choice. Times have changed and it's a whole new world of information and opportunity that our kids find themselves within. The question is, are they ready for it? Are we?

The Internet certainly isn't the only way in which the world had changed, and it's not an evil enterprise in and of itself, but it is an aspect of our lives, and our children's lives, that has opened up a whole new can of worms in regard to immorality and the growing threat of Internet predators. We can not afford to stand on the sidelines and hope our kids will make only good choices when their net passport signs them onto the world wide web. Instead of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, we must prepare our children, and prepare ourselves, for the times in which we live. We do not need to be computer programmers nor must we unplug the DSL, but we must be aware of the risks. Only then can we confront them.

Crimes Against Children Research Center did a study in 1999 based on 1,500 American teenagers aged 11 to 17 who used the Internet at least once a month. Statistics found that in a one year period of time 1 in 33 of these teens and pre-teens were asked to meet someone they met online in person, 1 in 17 were threatened or harassed, 1 in 5 were the victims of sexually driven comments and invitations, and 1 in 4 children were exposed to some type of pornographic images. Of all these incidents, only 25 percent were reported to a parent, and an even smaller number of those were relayed to the police or any online agency. In addition to these statistics, only one third of the households surveyed had filtering programs on their computer.

The key to protecting our children from these types of online threats is three-fold: education, supervision and software. Rather than hoping for the best, we can prevent the worst by making a few changes in our approach and our follow through.

Education

Trying to simply keep our kids off-line is not only difficult, but not realistic. To function in this society our kids are expected to have familiarity with the computer and the Internet. Instead of cutting them off from its advantages, make sure they understand that, just as with books, movies, TV and friends, they need to be careful in the choices they make online so that the information highway doesn't become the online equivalent to allowing our kids to play in the middle of the street.

To start, children should know to always choose screen names that keep their gender, state of residence, and age unknown. They need to be taught never to give out personal information online. Discuss with them standards in relation to site content, chat rooms, graphic levels of online games, information required by some memberships, posting pictures of themselves on line, and email options. Help them to manage their time online and balance entertainment with homework and research so that the Internet does not become the hub of their social life.

Everyone, especially teenagers, is looking for a friend--someone to talk to, that one person that will understand them better than anyone else in their life. If they become dependent on their Internet activities to fill their social needs they will be far more likely to cross the lines you have drawn. Make sure they understand the risks so that they are armed with the information they need to protect themselves.

Supervision

Nothing can take the place of parental awareness. You've heard over and over that you should keep your computer in a common area of the house. In addition, pay attention to websites your children visit, ask about what they do online, become familiar with the games they play, the blogs they read, the social networking sites they frequent. Yes, it's annoying. We were already teenagers once and we have teenagers of our own now, and who wants more adolescent angst? But you must know your kids and they must know that you know what they do online. Establish time limits, and know the screen names and passwords of the websites your kids frequent. Make sure you are the computer administrator and the only one with access to passwords and filtering software.

Software

There are two main types of software to assist parents online. Filtering software will block certain sites, words, and images; keeping pornographic materials from being viewed or downloaded. Most computers have some level of filtering as part of their standard software bundle. Monitoring software, on the other hand, records everything done on the computer, can track time each user spends online, and list websites viewed. Software ranges from simple to use, to requiring a great deal of computer proficiency to set up--so ask your friends, research different programs, and find one that best fits your needs. Once installed, keep an eye on it. Kids are notoriously smarter than we are when it comes to technology. With a little help from a friend they can disable the software you put in place, so be alert and aware of that risk.

These three points, education, supervision, and software, can keep you a step of ahead of the potential online threats, but as with any part of parenting, knowing our children and establishing a trustworthy relationship will go a long way. Nothing takes the place of a savvy and aware parent, nothing gives children more security than knowing their parents love them and want to care for them. By establishing clear boundaries and following up to be sure they are not being crossed, you can keep your children from becoming involved in immoral activities online and avoid the secrecy that Internet predators depend on.

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