When a child has a research project, the Internet is a portal to vast amounts of information, a wonderful resource for both parent and child; there are many useful sources to be found, such as research libraries, bookstores, news channels and even virtual museums. The Internet has become a means to socialize, enabling us to communicate inexpensively with millions of others throughout the world, learning about hobbies and developing new interests. Since this generation of children is accustomed to using a computer to do a project, it is natural that they will want to use the Internet for activities such as shopping, homework, IM and email.
While the Internet is an amazing resource, parents have justifiable concerns about how much time their child spends online, whom the child come in contact with online, and what is viewed. Some simple tips can be implemented to balance the abundant educational value with the need for security and protection. Your goal is to protect children from content you do not want them to see on the web and in email, and to protect them from people you do not want them to interact with. Here's how you can secure a wholly beneficial Internet experience for your child.
- Keep computers with Internet access in high-traffic, open areas of the house, such as the kitchen, family room or living room. Set hours that your child can be online. Decide whether or not you want him to be online when you are not home, and attempt to work with your child when possible on a school project or whatever reason he needs to be online. If he's going on to email or IM, try to be involved in his online dealings enough to know the parties that are conversing with him. While it might be time-consuming to sit with your child or spent the whole evening in the room where the computer is, remember that the Internet does remove the need for you to take your child back and forth to the library for research projects.
- Discuss parameters with your child: how much time to spend online, to whom she can give her email, and what types of websites she can visit. On the Internet, children and teenagers are easy targets of crime and exploitation. Children are anxious to explore cyberspace, so parents need to supervise their children and give them guidance about using the Internet. Apart from the dangerous parts of the Internet, some websites are simply inaccurate, and these websites would not be suitable resources for homework projects. Even if information is acceptable for your children or you approve of those people that your children are emailing, responsibly you would not allow your child to spend the majority of her time on the phone, and email and IM are no different. The same principle about not speaking to strangers reasonably extends to people online. If your child is a preschooler, do not allow her to access the Internet on her own; always assist her in entering the URL of websites -- even PBS or Sesame Street -- since she should not wander beyond the websites you allow her to visit. Set all search engine portals, such as Google, to the "family-friendly" filters to block objectionable content.
- Set boundaries for what type of information is acceptable to give out online. It is reasonable to set limits on what types of information or photos your child can post on myspace.com, photos sites such as flickr.com, or forums and chat rooms that might list a town and state with a name. Children need to know not to reveal personal information such as their address, home telephone number, or the name and location of their school. Tell them any request for information needs to be run by parents first. This may require you to be involved when a child signs up at a forum, chatroom or for an online service. Give consideration to their online name in email, forums and chatrooms and decide how much information you want to give about your child. For instance, the online name or email "John1997" tells people your child is a boy likely born in 1997. In other words, anyone would know that this is a 10 year old boy named John, without your son even having to give out any other information. Consider a less informative name that does not include references to gender, age, location, (i.e. NewYorkGurl1995) or name.
- Establish a set response in the possible event that someone scares or threatens your child on the Internet. If your child circumvents any rules or protections you set up and does talk to strangers online or in a forum, tell her it is important to know about any threats or nasty emails she might receive or any information that someone appears to have about your child. She needs to know that she should not attempt to handle this by herself. Unfortunately, spam emails often have subject lines that appear to know information about the recipient; children can be gullible and, when offered a free gift certificate or present, they might give out pertinent information like their zip code, and then there is a record of their email and hometown zip code (adults can be gullible enough to buy into spam as well, of course). A child might not realize that she gave out this much information about herself or that this information is for sale to marketers or may even ultimately put her at risk if she continues to give out information. Explain that you understand stuff like this can happen and you do not want her to attempt to face this problem alone, or to be scared to tell you about it. Since the internet is open to everyone, this includes those people your child would likely never encounter in daily life, like prisoners and scam artists. It is reasonable that children may need more assistance than normal in deciding what is a dangerous situation.
- Find out the policies implemented at other places your child accesses the Internet. Some libraries will allow children free access to almost any website, feeling they have no accountability for what children see. Find out the policies at friends' homes, schools, or Internet cafés your child might frequent.
- Block websites that you do not want your children to see. While your children may be obedient and not deliberately disobey you, kids are curious and may visit a website sent to them by a friend or visit a site you would disapprove of without a real intent to disobey, such as by following a series of links from an approved page to another page. Several programs exist that allow parental controls, meaning you can specifically block select websites or select types of content. Norton Utilities makes such a program. A host of others can be found at stores like Staples and Office Max. You may wish to block content such as pornographic pages or hate sites, websites that teach how to build a weapon or bomb, perhaps even select chatrooms. It is possible to have one setting for children and another for adults. If you are wondering what sort of websites your children have already looked at, you can review the "history" tab in your browser to see all the websites visited and how long your child spent there. You can block these sites. Learn to recognize the difference between Internet locations for playing games or chatting and places for getting help with homework. No software system is perfect, and often the child can find a way around these blocks, but they are still a good resource.
- Protect your child from unwanted and objectionable email. Tell your child not to give his email (or yours) out to anyone, and use a program like Norton to block any email that contains select vulgar words or content you do not wish for your children to see. Such a program essentially requires you to list every word or topic you do not wish for your children to get in email and have these messages re-directed to a spam folder or just deleted. Again, anti-spam software can help weed out objectionable content email, but spammers make money by figuring out how to circumvent these systems and getting email to not be blocked, so some mail will still come through. Have a policy in your house for opening or responding to email from people you or your children do not know.
- When necessary, consider other software options. If you are afraid that your child is disobeying you and placing herself at risk, in addition to checking the history in the browser, you can consider a type of program called a key logger. This records the keystrokes your child types in email, forums, chatroom, IM, etc., so if she's looking to meet up with a stranger or giving out information you are not comfortable with, it will record this information. This is not an option to consider for general curiosity on your part. While you will know what your child is doing, or at least typing to someone, this strategy is sort of the online equivalent of listening in on a child's phone conversations, opening her mail or going through her backpack or bedroom. While at times this may be considered justified, it is an invasion of privacy. Consider the seriousness of the step and decide if your concerns justify the approach.
- Block your child with a password. If you want to block your child's access to the Internet when you are home, consider password-protecting your computer itself with a password that he cannot guess, (birthdays, pets names and anniversaries are all easy to guess) so that he can't be online without your knowledge or when you are not at home.