As with the real world, the Internet has its seamy side -- and it's all too easy for kids to stray into it. Click-click and a Peter Cottontail fan's search for "bunnies" turns up raunchy pictures of women wearing fuzzy white ears and not much else. Porn, questionable characters, hate groups, and misinformation flourish online. To preserve the best of what's online for your kids and avoid the garbage:
1. Step into their cyberworld
"Parents have to get involved. Just as they know every detail of the playground around the corner -- the jungle gym, the swings -- they need to know their kids' online playground as well," says Tim Lordan, staff director of the Internet Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that produces the online safety guide GetNetWise. It may be hard to keep your eyes open after visiting what seems like the 100th website devoted to Barbie, but playing copilot to your child is the best way to make sure she gets a smooth ride. By the time she's 7, you won't need to be glued to her side, but you should be somewhere in the room or checking in frequently.
2. Set house rules
Decide how much time you're comfortable with your children being online and which sites they may go to. You might post a short list or even a signed contract (like the free ones at www.SafeKids.com) next to the computer. So there's no confusion, talk about the rules -- and the consequences for breaking them. "Our house rules say the kids are allowed half an hour of computer time on 'their days.' One child has Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other has Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then they get one hour each on the weekend," says Jamie Smith of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, mom of Hailey, 12, and Kody, 9. "They have certain sites they can visit without special permission. Any others have to be approved by me or my husband."
3. Teach them to protect their privacy
While they won't fully understand the consequences of revealing personal information online, you should still make sure your children know:
* never to give their name, phone number, e-mail address, password, postal address, school, or picture without your permission
* not to open e-mail from people they don't know
* not to respond to hurtful or disturbing messages
* not to get together with anyone they "meet" online.
Parenting contributing editor Anne Reeks writes a family computing column for the Houston Chronicle.
More tips to follow4. Know that location is key
Keep the computer in a central spot, where it's easy to monitor its use. "We have five computers in our house, but only two -- mine and the PC in the family room -- are hooked up to the Internet. That way, I can frequently check up on what they're looking at," says Cecilia Mitchell, a mom of three in Teaneck, New Jersey.
5. Be their go-to girl
Instruct your child to come straight to you when she sees anything that makes her uncomfortable, and assure her that you won't overreact, blame her, or immediately rescind her online privileges.
6. Turn your ISP into your ally
Before buying a safety product, experts recommend that you work with what you've got, starting with your Internet service provider (ISP). America Online, MSN, SBC Yahoo!, EarthLink, and others have reliable, free parental controls that can limit children's access to websites and communication features (e-mail, instant messaging, chat) by age, content categories, time, and other choices.
7. Make your browser work double-time
If your ISP lacks that capability, you still have some safe-surfing options at hand on your browser (the program that enables you to view web pages). Internet Explorer has Content Advisor (under Tools/Internet Options/Content), which filters out language, nudity, sex, and violence on a 0 to 4 scale. Netscape and Safari (for Mac users) have parental controls like filtering as well. Using your browser won't get you the comprehensive results that a safety product or your ISP would yield, but it can be suitable for the times you're sitting next to your little one surfing the net.
8. Tune up your search engine
Your search engine can be pressed into service for free. (But be aware: A savvy child could switch the settings back.) Once you set restrictions, Google will block sites with explicit sexual material (Preferences/SafeSearch Filtering). AltaVista puts several types of offensive content off-limits with its Family Filter (Settings/Family Filter setup).
9. Stay in a kid-friendly zone
For beginners as young as 4, consider confining online exploration to web addresses that list child-safe sites on everything from TV, movies, music, and games to world history, science, and trivia. Some good choices:
* web directory Yahooligans
* answer supplier Ask Jeeves for Kids
* the American Library Association's Great Web Sites for Kids
* the U.S. government's "Dot Kids" domain .
10. Call on software for assistanceWhile no technology is fail-safe, it does add another layer of protection. "The key is to make sure you have something that reflects your values and is just technological help, as opposed to trying to take over your role as a parent," says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit Internet safety and education organization with several websites. So make sure you can make changes to fit your family's needs.Though these six tools will cost you, most offer a free trial period, and all are champs at doing your bidding. Just ask yourself, what's your primary goal?
* Shutting out the smut (and other undesirables)
Best for parents who want maximum protection with minimal effort, CyberPatrol 6.2 deflects objectionable web content with a twofold filtering technique. It blocks sites on its comprehensive list of restricted web addresses, then does keyword pattern searches for offensive material on non-blacklisted sites that may have slipped through the cracks.
You decide: How much to customize. You can allow certain categories (Sex Education but not Adult/Sex, for instance); add your own blocked or allowed sites or keywords; and more.
What your child sees: Varies from a bold "Access Restricted" notice (with the CyberPatrol "To Surf & Protect" shield) to a discreet "This page cannot be displayed" message.
Cost: $40 for one year/$60 for two; Windows, www.cyberpatrol.com
* Keep the Internet under lock and key
ControlKey 2.0 is The Enforcer. No key means no Internet access. The small blue device (part of the company's SecuriKey product line) plugs into a USB port and also serves as a watchdog for you. Children can do homework-related research but not waste time IM'ing; they can open their own documents but not your desktop check register. Setup is a little tricky and time-consuming. But once installed and configured (according to what you want to control or protect), it's easy to use and a good choice for parents who want stronger restrictions or are dealing with kids who broke the rules. You'll just need to guard it like your car key. Register so the ControlKey "token" can be replaced ($45) if lost.
You decide: What to lock up: access to files you'd like to keep private? A particular computer game? Certain sites?
What your child sees: "Access Denied" message (when the computer is restricted) or "This page cannot be displayed" (Internet restricted).
Cost: $60; Windows, 800-986-6578 or www.controlkey.com
* A pristine site for young surfers
Instead of keeping out what's bad, Kidsnet keeps in what's good, and only that. Every website on its vast "white list" has been vetted and classified according to Internet Content Rating Association and Kidsnet standards. Home page Hazoo is well stocked with web offerings (even a Google search box), ranging from pbskids.org to hilaryduff.com.
You decide: What to exclude and include and how subtly to draw the distinction. What your child sees: "Ahoy mate!" A pirate or another cartoon appears on a "redirect" page, telling kids why they can't go to an off-limits site and offering two alternatives.Cost: $30/year; Windows, www.kidsnet.com
* Something to keep you safe online, too
Norton Internet Security 2006 provides everything: parental control over web content and Internet access, virus defense, spam blocking, privacy preservation, and firewall fortification. That makes it a good choice for families with general security concerns and less commitment to content-oriented parental controls (a small part of the protection package) and for those with older children plagued by spam and other system interlopers.
While setup takes a while -- you'll need to uninstall conflicting software, and it's best to back up your computer before you start -- it's easy to customize and manage all five programs included from a main "System Status" screen.
You decide: When to turn on parental controls; which of 31 content categories are blocked; whether to restrict programs that access the Internet; how high to set controls over sending private information.
What your child sees: Message that Norton "blocked access to this restricted site" and why.
Cost: $70/$90; Windows/Macintosh, www.symantec.com
* Knowing exactly what they've been up to online
When a child is using the computer, Spector 2.2 takes snapshots of what's onscreen at intervals and stores them in a hidden file to record all they do. You then view the file like a video (play, pause, fast-forward, rewind).
It's best for parents who have reason to believe a child is breaking the rules or is being victimized (or who want to keep a record, just in case). Just be aware that a program like this can erode trust if you use it to spy on kids without cause or on the sly.
You decide: Degree of sneakiness, between stealth mode and visible (a tiny red box in the system tray); whether to record everything or only activities involving Internet access; how often to capture images and when to delete them.
What your child sees: In stealth mode, the program is invisible.
Cost: $100; Windows/Macintosh, 888-598-2788 or www.spectorsoft.com