PC World Article:

Safe Kids
Try these 23 parent-approved tips to defend children and teens against Internet dangers--from overzealous marketers to online criminals.

Gregg Keizer

From the May 2001 issue of PC World magazine

You wouldn't put your child unsupervised in the middle of a city, would you?" asks Susan Grant, a National Consumer League vice president for Public Policy and director of its Internet Fraud Watch. "The Web is like that city." And it has a dark side.

Kids can come across malicious marketing, harassing e-mail, invasion of privacy, fraud, and hacking on the Internet. They may even encounter--or, out of curiosity, seek out--pornography and gambling sites.

The FBI's statistics show that "in 1996, [the agency] investigated 113 online child pornography and sexual exploitation cases," says Angela Bell, a spokesperson for the FBI. "Last year it had more than 1500."

Even though that's a mind-bending 1200 percent increase, your family isn't defenseless. Nor is the statistic a reason to panic. The Internet is still a great resource for your child's schoolwork research, keeping in touch with friends, and playing online games.

Through my own experience as a father of a 15-year-old girl and with the help of academic researchers, child-advocacy experts, law enforcement officials, and other parents, I've gathered 23 ways to keep kids safe on the Net.

"There's no magical cocoon that you can put your child in to protect them from bad things," says Grant. "It takes effort on your part."

Start Smart

Before monitoring your children's online activities or enforcing rules on their Web access, think about what you need to accomplish and consider the consequences. Bear these points in mind:

Maintain trust. Overprotecting your kids might convey that you don't trust them. Make sure your kids understand your intentions for watching over them.

Respect privacy. Kids have a right to privacy as long as you know they're safe. While you should keep tabs on their online habits, exercising too much authority can be construed as spying, which can lead to family conflict. Balance your supervision and think about how your kids might react.

Be realistic. Understand what your kids are exposed to both online and in the real world. To determine what you allow them to see on the Web, think about the music they hear and the movies they see. Be clear on each other's expectations.

Keep Younger Kids Safe

"Without limiting free speech, be aware of the information presented to your kids," says Cliff Dutton, a technology consultant and father of two from Providence, Rhode Island. With this idea of commonsense supervision, I've compiled ten hands-on, real-world tips for families whose preteens surf the Web. Though this batch of tips is aimed at children ages 7 to 11, some apply to kids of all ages.

Go online together. "The only time my 8-year-old daughter is on the Web is when my wife or I are with her," says Neil Warne, an architect from Eugene, Oregon. This practice makes the online journey a family affair, keeps children away from undesirable sites, and allows you to steer your kids to sites you think match their interests and age groups.

Monitor your child's online activities. "I know of only one thing that works," says Bob Ryan, a desktop computing support specialist from Hadley, Massachusetts, whose daughter has been Web surfing since she was 9. "You make it clear that you have the right to see what sites they visit, what they type, and who they talk to."

Some parents say enforcing a surveillance strategy is more difficult with older, privacy-minded teens. "My 12-year-old daughter is pushing back as she grows," says Dutton. But he's stayed firm and knows "she's safer as a result."

Establish rules. Create and enforce policies that your children must follow when they're online. Remind them to consult you when they see confusing or questionable content. Provide instructions on what kinds of sites they can visit, when they can go online, and how long they can stay there. For examples of such guidelines, visit the Federal Trade Commission and Safekids.com.

Remind your child not to give out personal information. Malicious marketers target kids for private information such as name, address, phone, and shopping preferences. In fact, according to an EPrivacy & Security Report--which surveyed over 1000 parents and kids ages 5 through 13--75 percent of children are willing to share personal information online in exchange for free stuff. Explain to your kids that on the Internet, some people are not who they claim to be.

Know your child's friends. Even if you restrict your children's Web access at home, they can still log on from places where you can't keep tabs on them. Talk to the parents of your kids' friends and gauge their take on safe surfing. Express your concerns about enforcing rules.

Be aware of your legal rights as a parent of a Web-surfing child. "It's important that parents know the legal limits of how personal information from children is handled," says the National Consumer League's Grant.

Under the 1998 Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), Web sites aimed at children under the age of 13 must include a notice about the types of information the sites collect from kids, how that information is used, and whether it's shared with others.

Parents must be notified by e-mail, regular mail, fax, or phone and must agree with the information collection before the site can capture, use, or share personal data. For more about COPPA, go to the FTC.

Protect passwords and create hard-to-decipher user names. Tell your kids never to give out their passwords, even to someone who claims to work for your ISP. (ISPs already know your password; they'll never call and ask for it.) Whenever you create user names or screen names, don't use aliases that reveal your children's real name, age, or gender. Teach your kids to follow this practice if they ever generate their own online identities.

Be wary about posting family photos in Web sites. Use a photo-sharing site that offers password or other security protection. At Zing.com, for instance, you can create online photo albums that aren't visible to the public, and you can even choose the specific albums that you want to allow your friends and family to view.

Use filtering software. Though this would be my last resort, filtering programs like Cyber Patrol and NetNanny can provide nervous parents with some comfort and assistance. They filter or block specific Web sites or subjects, and they restrict activities such as online chats and file downloads.

Like many parents, I'm not comfortable with such a priori censorship--it's no substitute for an honest discussion with your kids--but you may feel differently.

Another troublesome aspect of filtering programs: None of them are foolproof, and at times they block worthwhile sites, such as those about breast cancer (simply because of the trigger word "breast"). For a list of filtering tools, check out GetNetWise.com.

Consider a prefiltered ISP. If you're thinking about using filtering software, you should also look at ISPs such as Family.net, FamilyConnect, and MayberryUSA. These services block sites at the ISP's end, before they reach your home. They definitely aren't for everyone: They're typically even more restricted than filtering software, and many don't include an override option that gives parents unfiltered access. Still, they may be simpler than software filtering in multimachine households.

Tackle Teen Safety

Teenagers are most at risk on the Internet, in part because parents have loosened the strings that restrain their activities. Older kids use the Web differently, too.

"[They] have individual interests, tend to go online when they're bored, and are interested in talking to other people," says Janis Wolak, a research assistant professor with the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "Plus, there's an element of kids being curious about sexual things," which are easy to find online.

These ten tips can help you keep kids ages 12 and up safe.

Speak truthfully. Open the lines of communication between you and your children. Don't just set the ground rules for Internet use and leave it at that. "It's important to talk frankly with your kids about sexual solicitation and pornography," says Wolak.

If they accidentally click a link to an innocent-sounding but actually offensive Web site, make sure they explain to you what happened and understand what they should do in the future. Encourage them to confide in you when they see inappropriate text or graphics.

Know your child's online habits. As kids grow older, most parents keep less careful tabs on their activities, but you shouldn't completely ignore what they're up to. Find out about the Internet activities your kids participate in, including music downloads, AOL chats, Usenet newsgroups, IRC chat, and instant messaging. Keep your child's e-mail address as private as possible and set privacy preferences in the software your kid uses.

Set the computer in plain sight. Some parents decide to put the family's PC in a common area of the house. "It's important to be in the vicinity, giving a peek every so often," believes Giliane Bader-Wechseler, a mother of a 17-year-old son and an administrator at Boston University. "They need to know they're being monitored."

Crack down on chat. When the Crimes Against Children Research Center polled 1500 children and parents about online safety, chat proved to be the most dangerous Internet activity. In fact, 65 percent of online sexual solicitations happened in chat rooms.

Instant messages were a distant second at 24 percent; Web sites at 4 percent; online gaming sites, message boards, and newsgroups at 3 percent total; e-mail at 2 percent; and unknown sources at 2 percent.

Chat is dangerous because most rooms are not moderated and may be frequented by shady characters. If your children use chat, monitor their sessions and steer them toward moderated chat rooms.

Some of the same cautions apply to instant messaging. Dutton's daughter has received sexual solicitations through AOL instant messages. Wary of such incidents, he asked her to remove an offensive screen name from her buddy list. "She and her friends understand that there are limits and know that their parents are watching," says Dutton.

Step on spam. Typically kids come across sexual material through e-mail distributed by adult sites. Even if these messages don't include explicit photos, they almost always embed links to their sites; one click, and your child can be viewing hard-core porn. So install a spam-sniffing utility like Spam Killer, which blocks unwanted e-mail. Or ask your ISP if it offers a spam filter. For more tips on battling spam, see "Spam: It Happens."

Enforce a time limit. "Parents I've spoken to want to make sure that their kids aren't online until 4 a.m. on a school night," says Tom Powledge, a product manager for Symantec, which makes Internet security software. Imposing a limit can minimize visits to chat rooms, while still allowing access for schoolwork. If informal limits don't work, consider a utility such as Lockdown, Cyber Patrol, or NetNanny, that prohibits Web access at certain hours.

Scrutinize the browser's history file. Betty Ollen, an administrator at Boston University and the mother of two teens, is as pragmatic as parents come. "If kids want to," she says, "they can get around controls or filters you put in place."

Having discussed acceptable use of the Internet with her 14- and 16-year-olds, she relies on the home computer's history file to review the sites they visit and determine whether they are toeing the line. In Internet Explorer, for instance, you can see a list of recently visited sites by selecting View/Explorer Bar/History.

Manage your ISP account. Control your family's Internet account and its password. "I insisted that my daughter give me her password on her own [AOL] account," says Dutton, who voiced his concern about AOL Instant Messenger's potential for abuse. "I reassured her that I wouldn't use her password [except] when I think there's a danger." If you access your child's e-mail or saved chats, explain your reasons for doing so.

Outwit online fraud. Web auctions (such as EBay) are the most common paths to fraud, according to the Internet Fraud Watch. Warn kids about the dangers. "Parents should help children with analytical skills, no matter what the media; point out the difference between ads and other content and how to tell whether something is believable or not," says Grant.

Restrict online purchases without permission, even if teens have their own credit card. And check your credit card bills for unusual charges.

Report suspicious characters. If your child is sexually solicited or stalked online, inform local authorities. You can find links to state police departments at GetNetWise.

Report incidents to your ISP and to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline, which will forward your report to law enforcement officials and, when appropriate, to the sender's ISP. If an online contact tries to lure your child into a face-to-face meeting, contact the FBI.

Fight Back

The Net city has its bleak side, sure, but not all its streets are risky. The Web is a great place for kids to learn, congregate, and entertain themselves. You just have to educate your child about staying away from the dangerous parts of town. "I think most kids have a lot of common sense," says Wolak. "In most cases, they know how to get out of [harmful] situations." That may be true--but only if you show them how.

Gregg Keizer, the father of a 15-year-old daughter, is an Oregon-based writer.


Future Threat: When a Stranger Calls

New technologies come with new risks. Text messaging on cell phones (PC-based instant messaging gone mobile), for example, may not be popular in the United States yet, but it's all the rage in other countries.

You can be sure that harassers, solicitors, and obscene callers will latch on to this technology. So keep tabs on your child's cell phone usage.

Ten Useful Sites Help Keep Kids Safe

Looking for tips on sensible ways to protect kids and teens from the Web's dark side? Start with the advice we've given throughout these pages. Then check out the additional suggestions at these sites: