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Safety First

Guarding your children from the pitfalls of the Internet.

More than 80 percent of children have access to the Internet at home, at school, on their cell phones at a cybercafe, or in other places. Indeed, Internet access is virtually ubiquitous, and is capable of bringing rich educational and communications experiences to youngsters that their parents never had access to.

However, there is also that dark side of the Internet that co-exists with all the benefits–like the threats posed by online predators who target children and make initial contacts over the Internet. Gaining access to telephone numbers, these predators strive to make physical contact with children for exploitative purposes. Some have even launched “homework” sites for children that redirect young persons to pornographic sites.

Aware of these threats, parents, schools, libraries, technology companies and law enforcement have focused efforts to reduce child exposure to predators and pornography, but an ironclad strategy of prevention has proven to be elusive.

Part of this is due to today’s flexibility of technology and communications–combined with the sophistication of many online predators. Schools, libraries and law enforcement are working to develop their ability to fight these predators–and many parents are also experiencing the need to get cyber-educated to the degree that their children are. Unfortunately, those primarily entrusted with the safety of children–like parents–are still at a disadvantage at protecting them in an online environment.

As a legal response, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) states compliance guidelines for public libraries that are intended to safeguard young Internet users. Many libraries have responded with limited chat room and e-mail use, while also employing online content filters–but these public entities lack staff to supervise all Internet activity. They must also balance these child safeguarding responsibilities with their responsibility to provide uncensored information to the general public.

Even with the Internet filtering software that is available, trying to intelligently control online content is difficult. Sometimes Internet content filters inadvertently let material through. At other times, filtering is so stringent, that access to beneficial sites is blocked. Most Internet service providers are focusing their efforts on security breaches, computer hacking and the eradication of junk e-mail–but some (like AOL) do provide child safety and monitoring options.

The bottom line is that families are best equipped to keep children safe online.

Technology advances over the past two years have additionally delivered Internet access and online content to cell phones that many children between the ages of 8 and 18 are regularly using in unsupervised settings.

Child cell phone use has grown for several reasons: It’s a way for parents and children to stay in touch, given everyone’s busy schedules. Also, the cell phone has become a status symbol for youngsters.

Cell phone providers are targeting children, especially in the 10-16 year group, which they see as a lucrative market segment for downloads of ring tones, graphics and games.

The most important preventive strategy that parents can take to protect their children online has nothing to do with technology. It involves developing a healthy sense of self-esteem in each child. With dual careers as well as a household to run, parents can be tempted to use television and the Internet as surrogate babysitters. Child-safety experts agree that this creates a dangerous lack of supervision. Instead, parents should make time to listen to their children and show interest in their children’s activities. Child predators thrive in situations where communications have broken down.

As part of the communications that they share with their children, parents should participate with the Internet themselves to gain an understanding of the technology, and they should start talking with their children about their online experiences. Young people have to learn about the dangers of online predation and how to avoid getting into dangerous situations.

Next, parents can work together with schools, police departments, Internet providers–and anyone else who can help to safeguard the Internet for children. Using a PTA forum to bring up safe Internet use is one idea. Parents have also teamed with law enforcement, educators and others to fight online predation and child pornography.

On the home front, commercially available content filters and logging software can assist parents in the task of monitoring how their children are using the Internet. It is true that savvy students and predators can get around many of these filters, but filters and other software programs can still help parents supervise their children’s online activity. They can also prevent children from visiting dangerous Web sites and chat channels. Some filters can also keep children from sending telephone numbers, names and addresses in e-mails. There is even software that allows parents to go through all of the Web sites that their children have visited. However, parents should tell their children up front that they will be actively monitoring Internet activity, in the interest of open, straightforward communications.

Finally, if your child is using a cell phone, look for a model that is “child-safe” and that does not provide camera, voice mail or messaging capabilities. The cell phone should also not allow Web downloading or access. Disney, Firefly, LG and others manufacture them.

In the end, there is no substitute for some of the basic fundamentals of good parenthood:

* Parents and children should have open conversations with each other. If they do not, predators can exploit this.

* Parents should also discuss sex with their children before someone else does. This is never easy, but it prevents a child from being pre-exposed in a way that he shouldn’t be.

* Discourage your children from visiting online chat rooms unless they are under responsible adult supervision. Chat rooms have traditionally been a fertile ground for child predators.

* Place your computer in an area at home that is easy for you to physically monitor, and talk to your children about their online friends and activities.

* Establish rules on Internet use at home and away from home with your children.

The Internet enables children to experience education, communication and entertainment opportunities that were unavailable to past generations. A child studying art can sign onto the Louvre’s Web site and tour an online gallery from his computer at home. A student developing a science project can research the latest information on Mars. Clearly, Internet skills are vital for success in school and in the job market.

The Internet is also everywhere, and there is simply no way a parent can control all of a child’s Internet access opportunities. Certainly, software-based safeguards are commercially available. But in the end, good parenting, showing an active interest in your child and encouraging open communications are the winning combination.

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology practice for technology companies and organizations.

Quick tips for keeping kids safe

* Know the dangers. Pornography may be the most visible danger, but parents should be aware of dangers from online sexual predators, financial scams, Internet addiction and cyber-bullying.

* Talk to your child. Child safety experts consistently believe that open communication between parents and children is one of the best ways to keep your child safe. Surf with your child. Have them show you their favorite sites and activities. Make sure they know that they can talk to you about anything on the Web that makes them uncomfortable. And just as in the real world: Don’t talk to strangers.

* Monitor your children. Simple (and free) solutions include sharing an e-mail account and checking the browser’s history to see what sites have been visited. Even if you don’t share an account, you should maintain access to their accounts.

* Control access to the Internet. One of the simplest techniques is to keep the computer in a common room, where you can see and discuss the sites they visit. Another simple and free technique: Teach young children to use a Kid’s Directory of sites, and older children to use a family-safe search engine. If your child’s computer is in a different room or you want a more comprehensive solution, consider buying parental control software, which can not only provide time limits and control access to sites, games, chat, and file sharing, it can offer different levels of control for different age children.

* Check these sites for more information: GetNetWise;

Be Web Aware; and The FBI Parents’ Guide to Internet Safety. — Peter Ferioli, general manager, Net Nanny.

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