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Keeping Your Child Safe on the Internet

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.

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