Keeping Kids Safe on the Internet

Raleigh, NC: More than five million children in the United States have access to the "Information Highway." The Internet is rich with fun and educational resources, but it can also provide children with access to adult material and make them vulnerable to scams. Many of the children and teens who access cyberspace are more computer savvy than their parents, making it difficult for parents to monitor their activity and keep them safe. An increasing number of schools are on-line, and children in many homes log on to commercial services, private bulletin boards, and the Internet with little or no supervision. Parents need to be aware of the information that their kids are accessing by computer.

It helps to understand some basics. Private businesses maintain on-line services, and they often do not screen the material to which they provide access. Individuals, businesses, or organizations can operate computer bulletin boards (called BBS systems). Computer bulletin boards usually present information that pertains to a specific topic, such as doll collecting, golf, or vegetarian cooking. Some BBS systems feature "adult" oriented material, but most attempt to limit access by minors. The Internet, a global "network of networks," is not governed by any one entity. No one group comprehensively limits or checks the information that is maintained by and accessible to Internet users.

The Information Highway has many benefits, and most users have positive on-line experiences. Users can access information 24 hours a day, conduct business transactions such as making travel reservations, communicate through e-mail with people around the world, and use public message boards to meet people who share common interests. Being on-line can be a great way for kids to learn, as long as parents take certain precautions.

"Teaching your child or teen about Internet safety is as important as teaching them what to do when a stranger comes to the door," says Jennifer Tolle, Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse. "The Internet can provide kids with easy access to information that can harm them, such as sites with pornography, violence, and potentially intrusive marketing gimmicks that seek to collect personal information on families from children. Young people can inadvertently release sensitive information like bank account numbers and their mother’s maiden name to a con-artist."

Although there have been some highly publicized cases of child abuse involving computer usage, reported cases are relatively infrequent. Children can use on-line services safely with the help of their parents. Review the guidelines below with your child or teenager to help ensure positive on-line experiences. Most importantly, communicate with your kids regularly about their experiences on the computer and spend time with them while they’re on-line. Parental supervision is the most effective means of keeping your kids safe on the Internet. The guidelines below should help.

1. Children and teens should not give out personal information over the computer, especially not their home phone number or address, their parents’ work number or work address, or the name or location of their school.

2. Kids should never arrange to get together with someone they meet on-line, unless their parents go with them and the meeting is in a public place.

3. Discuss the rules for using the computer with your children, and emphasize the importance of following the rules. Rules should be posted and include when and where kids can go on-line.

4. Young people should never send a picture of themselves to anyone they meet on-line, unless they have their parents’ permission.

5. Get to know the services your child or teen uses. If you don’t know how to log on, get your child to show you. Find out what types of information the service offers and whether you can block access to offensive material.

6. Children should tell parents immediately if they come across any information that makes them feel uncomfortable. Explain to children that this includes any mean, scary, or confusing messages they receive on-line. Emphasize that it is not their fault if they receive a message like this. Do not respond to suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or threatening messages. Parents can contact the service provider if a family member receives an offensive message and ask for their assistance.

7. Immediately report the transmission, use, or viewing of child pornography while on-line to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children by calling 1-800-THE-LOST. You should also notify your service provider.

8. Remind children and teens that people on-line may not be who they seem. You can’t hear or see the person you are communicating with on-line, so it’s easy for them to pretend to be someone else. Someone indicating that "she" is a 10-year-old girl could be a 40-year-old man.

9. Remind kids that not everything they read on-line is true. If any offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be suspicious of any offers that involve coming to a meeting or having someone visit your home.

10. Investigate the purchase of software that allows Internet access only to predetermined sites or to sites with certain characteristics. Software can also help you to keep children from sending out personal information, provide a report of the web sites your children visit, or allow Internet access only at certain times of the day.

11. Watch out for junk e-mail, or "spam." If your access to the Internet is through a typical service provider, your junk e-mail will often include solicitations, some of an adult nature.

12. Keep the computer in a well-trafficked room of the house such as the family room.

To find out how you can help and to request FREE parenting information, call Prevent Child Abuse at (919) 829-8009 or 1-800-354-KIDS or email your request.

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