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Internet Safety for children


The Internet can be a wonderful resource for kids. They can use it to research school reports, communicate with teachers and other kids, and play interactive games. Any child who is old enough to punch in a few letters on the keyboard can literally access the world.

But that access can also pose hazards to your children. For example, your 8-year-old might log on to a search engine and type in the word "Lego." But with just one missed keystroke, he or she might enter the word "Legs" instead, and be directed to thousands of websites with a focus on legs - some of which may contain pornographic material.

That's why it's important to be aware of what your children see and hear on the Internet, who they meet, and what they share about themselves online.

Just like any safety issue, it's a good idea to talk with your kids about your concerns, take advantage of resources to protect them from potential dangers, and keep a close eye on their activities.

Internet Safety Laws

A federal law has been created to help protect your kids while they are using the Internet. It is designed to keep anyone from obtaining your kids' personal information without you knowing about it and agreeing to it first.

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires websites to explain their privacy policies on the site and get parents' consent before collecting or using a child's personal information, such as a name, address, phone number, or social security number. The law also prohibits a site from requiring a child to provide more personal information than necessary to play a game or contest.

But even with this law, your child's best online protection is you. By talking to your child about potential online dangers and monitoring his or her computer use, you'll be helping your child to surf the Internet safely.

Online Tools to Protect Your Child

There are online tools that you can use to control your child's access to adult material and help protect your child from Internet predators. No option is going to guarantee that your child will be kept away from 100% of the risks on the Internet. So it's important that you be aware of your child's computer activity and educate your child about the online risks.

Many Internet service providers (ISPs) provide parent-control options to block certain material from coming in to your child's computer. There is also software that can help block your child's access to certain sites based on a "bad site" list that your ISP creates. Filtering programs can block sites from coming in and restrict your child's personal information from being sent online. You can also find programs to monitor and track your child's online activity. Also, it's a good idea to create a screen name for your child to protect his or her real identity.

Getting Involved in Your Child's Online Activities

Aside from these tools, it's a good idea to take an active role in protecting your child from Internet predators and sexually explicit materials that are online. Here are some steps that can help you do that:

  • Become computer literate and learn how to block objectionable material.
  • Keep the computer in a common area, not in individual bedrooms, where you can watch and monitor your child.
  • Share an email account with your child so you can monitor messages.
  • Bookmark your child's favorite sites for easy access.
  • Spend time online together to teach your child appropriate online behavior.
  • Forbid your child from entering private chat rooms; block them with safety features provided by your Internet service provider or with special filtering software. Be aware that posting messages to chat rooms reveals your child's email address to others.
  • Monitor your credit card and phone bills for unfamiliar account charges.
  • Find out what, if any, online protection is offered by your child's school, after-school center, friends' homes, or any place where he or she could use a computer without your supervision.
  • Take your child seriously if he or she reports an uncomfortable online exchange.
  • Forward copies of obscene or threatening messages you or your child receives to your Internet service provider.
  • Call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678 if you are aware of the transmission, use, or viewing of child pornography online. Contact your local law enforcement agency or the FBI if your child has received child pornography via the Internet.

Many sites use "cookies," devices that track specific information about the user, such as name, email address, and shopping preferences. Cookies can be disabled. Ask your Internet service provider for more information.

It's also a good idea to set up some simple rules for your kids to follow while they're using the Internet. These rules may include:

  • Follow the rules you set, as well as those set by your Internet service provider.
  • Never trade personal photographs in the mail or scanned photographs over the Internet.
  • Never reveal personal information, such as address, phone number, or school name or location. Use only a screen name. Never agree to meet anyone from a chat room in person.
  • Never respond to a threatening email or message.
  • Always tell a parent about any communication or conversation that was scary.
  • If your child has a new "friend," insist on being "introduced" online to that friend.

Chat Room Caution

A chat room is a virtual online room where a chat session takes place. Chat rooms are set up according to interest or subject, such as skiing or a favorite TV show. Because people can communicate to each other alone or in a group, chat rooms are among the most popular destinations on the Web - especially for kids and teens.

But there are hazards to chat rooms for kids. There have been incidents where kids met "friends" who were interested in exploiting them through chat rooms. No one knows how common chat-room predators are, but pedophiles (adults who are sexually interested in children) are known to frequent chat rooms.

These predators sometimes prod their online acquaintances to exchange personal information, such as addresses and phone numbers, thus putting the kids they are chatting with - and their families - at risk.

Many pedophiles pose as teenagers in chat rooms. Because many kids have been told by parents not to give out their home phone numbers, pedophiles may encourage kids to call them; with caller id, the offenders instantly have the kids' phone numbers.

Warning Signs That Your Child May Be a Victim

There are warning signs that your child is being targeted by an online predator. Your child may be spending long hours online, especially at night. If there are phone calls from people you don't know or unsolicited gifts arriving in the mail, it's a good idea to ask your child about any Internet contacts. If your child suddenly turns off the computer when you walk into the room, ask why and monitor computer time more closely. Withdrawal from family life and reluctance to discuss online activities are other signs that you need to look more closely at what your child is doing online.

Contact your local law enforcement agency or the FBI if your child has received child pornography via the Internet or if your child has been the victim of a computer sex offender.

By taking an active role in your child's Internet activities, you'll be ensuring that he or she can benefit from the wealth of valuable information the Internet has to offer, without being exposed to any potential dangers.

Updated and reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2005
Originally reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD, and Neil Izenberg, MD

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