Nearly all American children now have access to the Internet. Internet technology affords children access to vast amounts of valuable information and endless sources of entertainment. However, it also exposes children to certain dangers. For example, children may come into contact with demeaning, racist, sexist, violent, hateful or false information. They may also view pornographic web sites, SPAM (unsolicited emails) containing obscene material, file swapping programs with inappropriate and sometimes mislabeled content, and other types of material potentially inappropriate for a child. Most worrisome, children may encounter actual predators that use the Internet to identify and lure victims through chat rooms, instant messaging facilities, and social networking sites.
As a result, some parents may understandably feel the urge to eliminate these risks by prohibiting their children from using the Internet. However, this decision would deprive them of access to an amazing resource for legitimate information and communication. Furthermore, parents might find it impractical to enforce such strict prohibition. For example, many schools require students to take Internet training classes, or use online databases in the classroom. In addition, motivated children and teens could circumvent their parents' prohibition by getting online in public establishments with Internet access or by using mobile or wireless devices. For these reasons, it is important for parents to strike a balance between the benefits and risks that the Internet poses to children. Parents can achieve such a balance by implementing strategies and protective steps like those discussed below.
Communicating Internet Risks to your Children:
Parents and guardians have a large role in accessing potential risks on the Internet, and communicating those risks to their children. Due to first amendment rights to free speech, various types of information can be posted in the web, some of which a parent may find inappropriate for their child(ren) to view. Therefore, communicating with children about any risks that they can encounter online is the most important and most effective strategy to keep children safe while they surf the web. It is hard for a child to try to avoid potentially inappropriate material if they do not know what to avoid.
To communicate these risks most effectively, a parent must understand the risks. This may sound trivial, but uses for the Internet are growing and changing as web technologies advance. For example, social networking or online gaming present specific and potential risks that may be unfamiliar to a parent that does not use the Internet for these purposes. Therefore, it is important for parents to stay abreast of current technologies in order to best communicate all potential risks to their children. (For further information on the benefits and risks associated with different Internet uses and applications, see National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Keeping Kids Safer on the Internet: Tips for Parents and Guardians)
Parents may also wish to establish an open dialogue with their children. Open dialogue allows children to feel comfortable to tell a trusted adult if they come across material that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. It also allows parents and guardians to play an active role in understanding their children’s Internet use. Open discussions allow all parties to feel comfortable with the children’s internet use.
Setting Out Rules, Guidelines, and Contracts:
Many parents find it helpful to set down clear rules for their children to follow. Clear rules also help guide children to understand potential risks and dangerous situations. Examples of rules include:
- Do not disclose personal information such as full name, address, phone number, social security number, etc.
- No posting your picture on public sites of any kind.
- No chatting with strangers.
Sometimes families find it helpful to design formal Internet usage agreements or "contracts."
(See http://www.nap.edu/netsafekids/pro_set_guidelines.html for tips on setting up those kinds of agreements)
Using Technology to Protect Children:
Filtering technology consists of software that screens out some content while allowing other material to flow through to its intended destination. Parents can set up various filters to block material according to their families' priorities and preferences. The technology is not perfect - some desirable material may be accidentally blocked and some objectionable material may slip through the cracks - but filtering programs generally serves the useful purpose of automatically and consistently screening out harmful material. Filtering technology comes in several forms:
- Client-side filters: Users install client side filters on their own computers. Parents can employ user-friendly interfaces or screens to set up the kinds of materials that they want to block. Only people with the password to the filter software can disable or turn off the program.
- Content-limits or Content-filters from Internet Service Providers (ISPs): Internet Service Providers - the companies that connect your home computer to the Internet -- usually offer the option to block adult or other kinds of content. The ISPs advertise these family friendly services in their promotional materials and in the companies' "terms of services."
- Server-side filters: Businesses and enterprises like schools or libraries use these sophisticated filtering systems. Server-side filter systems allow system administrators to vary the level of filtering for different users. For example, a school district's library system could use a more restrictive filtering system for students than for teachers.
- Search engine filters: Many search engines, such as Google and AltaVista enable users to turn on the safety filter that limits search results to appropriate material. While effective in screening out accidental "hits" or results that include inappropriate content, search engine filters do not restrict access to content if a surfer directly types in a URL. Other search engines, such as Lycos and Yahoo!, offer special children's versions of their search engines that permit searches of only child-friendly sites.
Monitoring technology enables parents to supervise children's Internet activity by reporting on their surfing activity. Some monitoring software creates a digital record of the websites that children visit and makes that information available for parents to later review. Likewise, keystroke software makes a record of all of the keystrokes that a child user makes, so that the parents can later review what their children typed. Other variations and combinations of this software exist as well.
Tracking Web History
Many Internet browsers (such as Internet Explorer, Netscape, or America Online) automatically track recent websites viewed by a user. Therefore, parents can easily review the browser "history" file to see approximately 20 sites that have been most recently visited by that browser. Along similar lines, parents can search their computer's Internet "cache" files, which are system resources that store a longer list of recently visited Internet sites. Furthermore, parents can gather information using their computer's "cookies" records as well. Cookies are trace files that contain information about Internet users and can provide additional clues for parents about the kinds of sites that their children are visiting. However, parents should recognize that technically skilled children can edit or delete all of these kinds of records.
What to do if a Problem Arises:
National and local law enforcement agents investigate criminal activities that may arise from Internet use.
- Parents who come across offensive material or hear about online predators should document related online activities as much as possible and report all activities directly to local law enforcement or the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
- Parents who know of a website that is operating illegally should report that information immediately to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's website at www.cybertipline.com, or by calling 1-800-843-5678. Your report will be forwarded to a law enforcement agency for investigation and action.
Parents may also want to tell their children how to report offensive material. That way, the children have a constructive way of reacting to embarrassing or upsetting materials discovered on the Internet.