How Can You Keep Your Child Safe Online?
The online world mirrors the real one:
it includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. While all parents
want to keep their child safe, parents will have different
standards for what they allow their child to experience online.
This section covers:
- Benefits, dangers and parenting strategies
for guiding a child's use of email, the Web, and chat;
- Legal and ethical rules of the road;
- Guidelines for your child to stay safe
Parents in Charge
Certain people can pose a danger to kids
online and certain information online is not appropriate for
children, or is appropriate only for certain ages. Most parents
have strong feelings about what their children should be exposed
to, and are concerned about how easy it is to get information
online. Parents may worry about materials that are sexually
explicit, violent, racially biased, or overly commercial.
The good news is there are several things
that parents can do to help make their children's online experiences
- Learn About the Internet
If you are just starting out on the Internet, see what your
local library, community center, school or newspaper offers
by way of introduction.
- Get Involved
Your involvement in your child's life, including his or
her online life, is the best insurance you can have of your
child's safety. Use our parenting tips in this section and
learn with your children about fun things to do as well
as about the dangers online in a way that makes you a partner
in the experience, rather than a resented censor.
- Stay Informed
Keep yourself informed about parental control tools and
how they can help you keep your child safe online. (See
below for an introduction to what currently available tools
can and cannot do.)
- Become an Advocate for Kids
If you see material or practices online you do or do not
like, contact your Internet Service Provider and the company
that created the material. Take advantage of this unique
opportunity to make sure that this growing medium develops
in positive ways for kids.
Parental Control Tools
These tools use several different strategies to help
you control what your child does online. Check out the overview
of email, the Web, and chat on these pages for a list of the
most common features of parental control tools.
But, remember no parental control tool
is 100% reliable. Not only do tools inadvertently allow access
to some inappropriate material and block access to some valuable
information, but savvy children may be able to get around
Finding Parental Control Tools
At this time, there are three primary places
from which parents can obtain parental control tools:
- Your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
The best place to start is with the company that provides
you with a connection to the Internet, such as America Online
or Prodigy. Most offer a range of control features, often
- Your Local Computer or Retail Store.
Here you can buy "blocking and filtering" software, such
as Cyber Patrol and CYBERsitter, that includes features
similar to the ones provided by an ISP. You have to set
up these products on your own computer.
- Your Web Browser. You can also
use certain Web browsers, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer,
to enforce parental control rating systems.
Keep an eye on other parental control tools,
such as "safe areas" for kids, new types of rating systems,
and search engines designed to find only information that
has been approved for families.
Be Sure to Find Out Whether the Tool:
- Has the protection features best for
- Can be used on the type of computer
- Requires a subscription fee after you've
bought the product
- Works with commercial service providers,
with direct Internet connections, or with both.
Positive Benefits for Your Child
- Keep in touch with teachers, family,
- Get help with homework
- Establish mentoring relationships
- Practice writing
- Receive online newsletters
- Make world-wide pen pals
- Share your child's email account and
- Talk with your child about the people
he or she is meeting online.
- Set a rule that your child never arranges
an in-person meeting without you present.
- Complain to the sender of unsolicited
email and to your ISP about unwanted email.
Positive Benefits for Your Child
Access rich educational and cultural resources
(text, sounds, pictures, and video) otherwise unavailable
to most people.
Obtain up-to-the-minute information.
Improve ability to understand and evaluate
Stay informed by accessing your community
and school Web sites.
Play fun and educational games.
Learn educational skills useful in future
with sexually explicit images and text.
Easy-to-find sites promoting hatred, bigotry,
violence, drugs, cults, and other things not appropriate for
Inaccurate, misleading and untrue information.
No restrictions on marketing products such
as alcohol and tobacco to children.
Marketing that deceptively collects personal
information from kids in order to sell products to them or
Requests for personal information for contests,
surveys, etc., that are used in unauthorized ways.
Easy access to games with excessive violence
and gender stereotypes.
Keep computer in family area to better
monitor your child's activity.
Regularly spend time online with your child
to learn about his or her interests and activities.
Teach your child to end any experience
online when he or she feels uncomfortable or scared by pressing
the back key, logging off, and telling a trusted adult as
soon as possible.
Establish an atmosphere of trust and understanding
with your child by not blaming him or her for uncomfortable
Discuss the difference between advertising
and educational or entertaining content and show your child
examples of each.
Show your child the difference between
sources of information that are credible and those that are
Teach your child to never give out personal
information unless he or she has your permission and you know
how and by whom the information will be used.
Establish strict rules for ordering products
(and then monitor credit card bills).
"Talk back" to Internet Service Providers
and content creators to let them know what you want and expect
from them in keeping kids safe online.
What Parental Control Tools Can Do
Block access to materials (text and pictures)
identified as inappropriate for kids.*
Permit access only to materials specifically
approved as safe for kids.*
Allow you to specify what types of materials
are appropriate for your child.
Help you monitor your child's activity
on the Internet by storing names of sites and/or snapshots
of material seen by your child on the computer for you to
Allow you to set different restrictions
for each family member.
Limit results of an Internet search to
content appropriate for kids.
Block advertising that appears at the top
of a Web page.
Enforce time limits set by parents.
* Each control tool determines whether
materials are "inappropriate" or "safe for kids" differently.
Make sure you ask what criteria the tool uses and how the
evaluation process works; then check out the tool yourself.
Positive Benefits for Your Child
- Develop relationships with children
and adults around the world
- Talk to kids and teens with similar
interests and concerns, in rooms specifically for kids that
are monitored closely by adults
- Communicate instantaneously with family,
friends, teachers, community leaders, etc.
- Accompany your child in chat rooms until
he or she learns your safety rules.
- Teach your child to never give out personal
information such as his or her name or address, school name
or address, or anything else that is personally identifying.
- Explain that people are not always who
they say they are.
- Set a rule that your child never arranges
an in-person meeting without you present.
- Limit your child to specific chat rooms
or consider blocking out chat entirely.
Privacy and Commercialism
Internet was founded as a research and defense tool, and only
now is its full commercial potential being explored. Advertisers
and marketers recognize that millions of children are spending
more time online and represent a major market:
In 1997, children spent $27 billion and
influenced an additional $187 billion in other's spending.9
Online protections for children are just
being developed in this arena, so parents need to be particularly
vigilant and active.
Parents are used to media that have been
regulated over time to protect children, like telephones and
television. However, many regulations, such as those which
restrict alcohol and cigarette advertising to children, do
not necessarily apply online.
Moreover, traditional distinctions between
advertising and content are blurred in many child-oriented
sites-making it harder for children to distinguish commercials
from "content." Further, the interactive nature of this medium
makes it easier for marketers to collect personal information
from children without necessarily revealing how it will be
used and without getting permission from parents. In some
cases marketers use free merchandise and familiar characters
to encourage children to provide personally identifying information.10
According to a report from the Center for Media Education,
online advertisers are targeting children as young as four,
using marketing and advertising practices that are potentially
harmful to children.11
As a parent, you can help protect children
from harmful or inappropriate marketing practices by letting
companies know what you think of their advertising and marketing
practices and by contacting your Congressional representative
or the Federal Trade Commission if you experience practices
you think are wrong.
The Law Online
Many laws that pertain to information in
other forms like books, magazines and television may apply
in cyberspace, but have not yet been tested. Although the
law is changing and lawmakers are struggling to find ways
to regulate this challenging new medium, some rules do apply.
In some cases, you or your child could inadvertently run into
trouble with the law, including prosecution, prison, and fines
for breaking the law. Here are some basic guidelines about
frequently asked legal questions. Refer to the Resources section
for updated and more extensive information.
Copying photographs, music, stories, films, and other artistic
works is not allowed online without obtaining the proper
permission from the owner of the copyright. Typing a story
from a magazine and distributing it or scanning a photograph
for posting is illegal unless you obtain permission from
the original publisher. However, many photographs and graphics
have been approved for public use (they are considered "public
domain"). And, in cases where permission is needed, it is
often made easier online by an email link to request permission.
Copying or Distributing Software
Virtually all software is copyrighted. Copying and distributing
purchased software is almost always illegal. However,
there are software programs called "freeware" or "shareware"
that can be used for free, for a minimal fee, or only under
specific conditions. Regardless of what the software is
called, you should read the conditions under which you can
upload or download it legally.
Email is generally afforded privacy rights if it is sent
between individuals. Information or messages posted to a
public location are not considered private. Children should
be aware that no legitimate service provider will ever request
information about them. Some Web sites, however, will request
your address or phone number for marketing purposes or to
add you to a mailing list. This is not illegal, but there
is no obligation for your child to give the information.
It is generally considered illegal to access or attempt
to access a private information system, such as a company's
internal network. This is called hacking. Children will
explore the Internet-that is what it is there for. They
should be warned that if they ever encounter a private system
that asks them for a user ID (or userid) and password, they
should leave the site immediately.
This is a very complicated area. However, parents should
remember that materials they might consider obscene or objectionable
for their children to see may be protected by the First
Amendment and not considered legally obscene. Under current
law, anything that is legal in print is generally also legal
on the Internet. However, commercial online services have
the right to restrict access to obscene or indecent materials
on their systems. One clear area is child pornography; the
production, sale, or possession of child pornography in
any medium violates federal law.
Who to Call if You Have a Problem With Behavior Online
Most commercial online services have strict
terms of service that help protect you and your child in the
event you encounter offensive behavior. If you or your child
are the victim of harassment or other trouble online, contact
your commercial or Internet Service Provider immediately.
Offenders can have their accounts terminated, and service
providers usually will cooperate with authorities when there
is the possibility that a crime has been committed.
If the situation involves incidences of
online enticement of children for sex acts, child pornography
or child prostitution, you can report the incident to The
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's "CyberTipline"
by calling toll free, (800) 843-5678, or going to their Web
The CyberTipline forwards all reports to the appropriate law
A Young Person's Ground Rules for Online Use
Just like teaching a young person to drive
a car, and balancing privilege with responsibility, you need
to provide your child with some tools to help him or her stay
safe online. One of these can be a set of Ground Rules that
outlines the rules of safety that you and your child agree
Ground Rules for a Young Person's Online Usage
- ALWAYS tell a parent or another
adult immediately if something seems scary or threatening.
- NEVER give out a full name, real
address, telephone number, school name or location, schedule,
password, or other identifying information when online.
Check with an adult for any exceptions.
- NEVER have a face-to-face meeting
with someone encountered online. In rare cases, parents
may decide it's OK. But if one meets a cyberpal, it will
be in a public place and with a parent or guardian present.
- NEVER respond online to messages
that use bad words or words that are scary, threatening,
or just feel weird. If that kind of message is received,
print it out and tell an adult immediately. The adult can
then contact the online service or appropriate agency. If
uncomfortable in a live chat room, use the "ignore" button.
- NEVER go into a new online area
that will cost additional money without first asking permission
from a parent or teacher.
- NEVER send a picture over the
Internet or via regular mail to anyone without a parent's
- Do NOT give out a credit card
number online without a parent present.
Right and Wrong: Ethics Online
addition to the law, parents ought to know about the special
ethical issues that come up with this new technology. The
interactive, seemingly anonymous, nature of the online world
raises old ethical questions in new ways, especially for children.
Because the online world can feel "pretend"
to a child, it is very important that a parent articulate
and reinforce the importance of basic values (ethics) such
as truthfulness, responsibility, and respect. Children need
a careful explanation of what is acceptable behavior and why,
and they need to know what exceptions, if any, are permissible.
Parents can use the "new" situations that
come up online to reinforce basic standards of conduct and
talk about values. For example:
Is it all right to download software
programs that are available at some online sites?
Only when the source of the information gives you explicit
permission to do so. Stealing information is like stealing
other things. It's wrong and illegal.
Can I take information off the Internet and pretend that
I created it?
No. It is both wrong and illegal to take information that
you did not create and represent that it is yours. Many
words and images are protected by laws, so pay careful attention
to which ones are. It is important to report who or what
the original source is.
Is it all right to pretend to be somebody else when you're
online?(Can a boy pretend to be a girl? Can children
pretend to be older than they are?)
The online world allows you to create a special name that
you can use, and helps children go online with a degree
of anonymity. However, pretending to be something you are
not in a way that deliberately misleads others who are presuming
you are truthful is not all right.
It is important for you to talk with your
children when these kinds of questions come up. They provide
one of your best teaching tools. Since you're learning too,
take the time to really discuss the tough questions and help
your child to be a good citizen in cyberspace.
Etiquette Online: "Netiquette"
etiquette," called "netiquette," is also important for children
and their parents to understand. There are widely accepted
rules of behavior to follow when you're online, including
(but not limited to):
- Don't TYPE ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS for
emphasis. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING. If you need to
emphasize a word, use asterisks, like *this.*
- Be polite. When you enter a chat room,
wait awhile to find out what people are talking about before
you participate. Be patient with newcomers.
- Be careful not to use rude or bad language
online. Many providers will terminate your account.
Safe Traveling on the Information Superhighway: A Parents' Checklist
- Tap your child's natural sense of wonder
and discovery and temper it with your experience and counsel.
- Let your child take the lead, but stay
with him or her until you've decided the activity is appropriate.
- Spend as much "cybertime" with your
child as you can.
- Provide your child with clear, simple
instructions about how to avoid danger and what to do if
- Set limits appropriate to your child's
- Talk to your child often about his or
her computer/online life.
- Monitor, Monitor, Monitor (time, phone
bills, chat groups, and onscreen materials).
- Use online experiences as another way
to teach responsibility, good conduct, and values.
Sample online symbols called Emoticons:
= I'm happy
:-( = I'm sad
(:-& = I'm angry
:-O = I'm shouting
= By the way
LOL = Laughing out loud.
OTOH = On the other hand
IMHO = In my humble opinion.
There are hundreds of these symbols to use while online. You
will see them as you spend time emailing, and most Internet
guides will have a list of them (see Resources).