Safety in Cyberspace
Providing a safe and rewarding Internet experience for children requires equal commitment to protection from potential online problems and socialization towards appropriate and productive Internet use.
Guiding children and teens in Internet use is similar to guiding them in the use of other things that share elements of benefit and danger. Camping, bicycling, swimming and traveling are examples of activities that offer children tremendous benefits, and yet children can be harmed by the dangers that accompany these activities.
A computer with Internet access in the home may not seem dangerous at all, but its risks are subtle. In its unregulated form, the Internet provides children equal access to material that is both educational or entertaining, and erotic or illegal.
As an interactive medium, the Internet brings people together. The same channels of communication that can connect children to distant friends and relatives can also connect them to strangers with bad intentions. Chat rooms, especially, because of their level of anonymity, are often visited by adults who pose as children. Ernest Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children points out that youth often "view cyberspace as a variation on their computer or video games and are not on guard against harmful online relationships."
The basic steps of protection include building good boundaries, avoiding trouble spots, maintaining oversight and setting a good example.
Build good boundaries
Three aspects of providing boundaries involve computer location, time restrictions and "technological walls."
Location of the computer. It is best to have Internet access only on computers in an open family area where use can be monitored. This reduces temptation in a major way.
Time restrictions. Limiting Internet use to certain hours sends the message that late-night surfing is off-limits and that online use should be balanced with other activities.
Technological walls. A variety of tools give parents the opportunity to remove offensive material from the breadth of content available to their children.
- The most restrictive boundary is the closed system. These Web portals limit children to content that has been approved for them and can be compared to fenced-in playgrounds.
- A less restrictive boundary is an Internet filtering service. Filtering services provide access to the World Wide Web and other Internet features while making an effort to screen or block out offensive material. This material can either be filtered at the customer's computer, or at the server level. Many parents have discovered that computer-level filtering gives them greater ability to monitor the sites their child visits, restrict time of day access, and keep their children from giving out personal information.
- However, many parents report that server-level filtering is much easier than computer-level filtering because it does not require frequent downloads of new "bad Web site lists." Instead, the service provider is responsible for maintaining the filter. The ideal service is one that provides server-level filtering and is supplemented with additional parental controls at the computer level.
Avoid trouble spots
Children who are not looking for inappropriate material can bypass most of the bad stuff if they have help avoiding trouble spots. To that end, children should avoid unmoderated groups, unmonitored chat rooms and unfiltered search engines.
Newsgroups are areas that organize postings on specific subjects such as dog owners, Jimmy Stewart fans, or philosophy. Often newsgroups are moderated in order to keep the postings polite and on subject. Some of the worst newsgroups are those that are unmoderated and contain vulgar language and explicit photos. Newsgroups that begin with "alt." are unmoderated and are often dedicated to trading sexual comments and images.
Chat rooms are areas of the Internet where comments from users are posted simultaneously on the screen. Celebrities often host chat rooms to take and answer questions from fans. Friends and family members often use chat rooms to communicate cheaply long distance. Unfortunately, chat rooms can bring out the worst in users. Many individuals who enter chat rooms conceal their identities. While such anonymity keeps users from revealing personal information, it may also encourage them to embellish the truth and to say sexual or hurtful things they normally would not say in face-to-face conversations. Monitors often sit in on chat rooms to kick out those who use bad language. Monitors, however, cannot always detect when adults are pretending to be children in order to strike up abusive relationships. Ultimately, chat rooms are best reserved for communication between people who already know each other.
Search engines, such as Google, use technology that sorts millions of Internet documents in order to return files related to a searcher's interest. Many children who accidentally find pornography on the Internet, find it when using search engines. Unfortunately, pornographic sites can appear in the search results for subjects as innocent as "puppies" or "doll."
The best way around this problem is to limit children to either filtered search engines or to directories approved for children. Some search engines provide free filtered searches that aim to return only content appropriate for children.
While it is important to trust your children, you should also verify your trust by monitoring your child's Internet use. Every once in a while, check the files in your browser to see which sites have been visited. Many software programs provide detailed reports of all the sites children visited during online sessions. The newer Web browsers also provide monitoring as a standard feature. For example, if you are using Netscape, you can enter the command "about:global" into the "Location" box and see a list of all of the sites visited in the past 60 days. In the newer versions of Microsoft Explorer, you can click on the "history" button to get a detailed report of recently viewed sites.
Set a good example
I recently heard a woman explaining that when she confronted her son about downloading Internet pornography, he told her he didn't think it was a problem because he saw his dad sneak out to view it in the middle of the night. It has been said that children learn more from their parent's example than their words. While some material is more appropriate for adults than children, (for example the movie "Schindler's List"), we believe here at TroubledWith and our sponsoring organization, Focus on the Family that pornography is inappropriate for both children and adults. We believe parents should model appropriate "adult" use of the Internet. For children, "adult material" should not mean "those nude pictures my dad looks at" and "adult language" should not mean "those dirty words that mom types in email or chat rooms."
While it is important to build good walls of protection, those walls tend to come down when your children leave home. For that reason, it is equally important to balance an effort to build walls with an effort to build character ??? to socialize your children to make good choices and to seek after good things. If you build character in your children, they will develop "portable values," values that go with them and direct their Internet use at school, in the library or at a friend's house (locations where many children discover harmful online material).
The key aspects of socialization are open communication, hands-on involvement, balanced use of time and even the simple act of showing love and affirmation.
Encourage open communication
The greatest threat to principled Internet use is closed communication, which can lead to hidden secrets and shame. When you are online with your children, talk openly and be candid about trouble spots and potential dangers. In casual conversations, ask your children what Web sites they like and why. Also, ask who their online friends are, if they have any. Most importantly, encourage them to go to you anytime Web sites or email upset them ??? instead of feeling embarrassed or guilty.
Initiate hands-on involvement
Children, and even teens, benefit most from your direct involvement in their Internet experience. While it may not be feasible to be close by every time your children are online, it is advisable to be closely involved in their discovery process. Your direct cautions and guidance can provide valuable cues to your children.
Hands-on involvement, however, means more than just watching your child or teen explore ??? it also means initiating specific projects or explorations. You can take your younger children on "virtual field trips" to online destinations ranging from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood to the Dead Sea Scrolls. You can invite teens to help you build a family Web site or to plan a major purchase or vacation together.
Balance off-line time
After making efforts to provide your family with quality online time, it is important to shut the computer off and engage in other activities, such as playing family board games or getting outside. Balance computer use with good face-to-face, and "real life" activities. Clifford Stoll, a pioneer of the Internet advises parents that, "Life in the real world is far more interesting, far more important, far richer, than anything you'll ever find on a computer screen."
It is for this reason that psychologist Steve Kavanaugh stresses that parents should never use the computer as a baby-sitter. He says, in fact, that it is better for children to be bored and then discover other outlets.
Maintain love and affirmation
One of the most effective ways parents can ward off online problems is to apply a very low-tech solution ??? and that is to show their children love and affirmation. Recent news stories have demonstrated that some children go online looking for the love and attention they can't find at home. An article in The Record (Bergen County, NJ), reported that "children who are most vulnerable to encountering online difficulties are lonely teens with poor self-esteem who are isolated from their parents and peers and would be at risk even if the Internet did not exist."
Building strong and trusting relationships, it turns out, can go a long way toward reducing the chance that children will fall victim to dangerous online ones.
Questions and Answers
StoriesIf you've been through a experience related to this topic, we invite you to share your story with others.
Share Your Story