Protecting your kid on the Internet

March 04, 1999

By KATE COLEMAN / staff writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Your kid likely knows more about your home computer than you do. That's OK.

And don't worry yourself to death thinking that your child could become the next victim of an online pedophile or have his or her innocence destroyed by the appearance of pornographic, violent or hate-filled images on your computer screen.

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There are ways to reduce Internet risks. Some are high-tech, using software that blocks unsuitable Web sites or keywords for subjects inappropriate for young surfers. Others are plain common sense and old-fashioned parenting skills.

One tool for parents is to control the child's access to the computer. Lock it up or permit the child to use it only at certain hours. "That's a pretty restrictive policy," says Terence McPartland of Charles Town, owner of Global Learning, which offers training to those doing business on the Internet.


With his two children, he prefers what he calls supervised access. His business, with six or seven computers, adjoins his home. McPartland says he has kind of a watchful eye. He recommends having the computer screen pointing toward "Mom's station" in the kitchen.

George Cassutto, a North Hagerstown High School history and computer teacher who also teaches an introduction to the Internet class at Hagerstown Community College, says he never would leave a computer in a kid's bedroom, just as he wouldn't leave a TV with access to adult cable channels.

Washington County Board of Education's computer user policy is stated in student handbooks. Cassutto says he hasn't had problems with students at school. Consequences for obscene material online are akin to those for bringing obscene material to school in other forms, he says.

Washington County schools use WebSense, software that reviews URLs - universal resource locators - for appropriate Web sites, according to Thomas Prather, computer resource teacher. Sometimes sites teachers want their students to access are blocked by the software. Appropriate sites can be unblocked.

Nothing's perfect

"No blocking software is 100 percent perfect," says John Davidson, supervisor of Computer-Related Instruction for Washington County Schools. But he says the school system is doing the best it can to protect children. Parent permission is required for students to use e-mail, Davidson says.

McPartland recommends strict rules for kids using e-mail: Never mention your last name, the name of your school, your phone number or your street address.

How about chats - live online conversations? McPartland says anyone can pretend to be anyone or anything online, and children and parents both need to be aware of that.

His e-mail rules take on a religious fervor when it comes to chats, he says. But he's still a big proponent of chats.

"It makes kids use the computer to write," he says. They also will learn to type fast - or look like an idiot in front of their peers. Another benefit is communicating with other people. It's a different kind of communication, he grants, but writing is an important skill.

There's another advantage, at least for McPartland. "It's cheap." he says.

His kids live in West Virginia and go to school in Virginia. He saves money on long-distance phone calls.

There is a variety of software and browsers with built-in filters that block access to unapproved sites or permit access only to approved sites.

Some can be too protective. For example, McPartland's company Web site was blocked at home. Some filters block access by keyword. A student might not be able to find information for a report on "breast" cancer or the "sexual reproduction" of the amoeba because keywords set up a barrier. Filters are not a guarantee, but they can protect a child from casually stumbling upon something unacceptable, McPartland says.

So you have everything taken care of at home and feel safe. Then your child goes to visit a friend whose family values and sense of what's appropriate may be different from yours. Now what are you going to do?

"We're still the parents," says Parry Aftab, a self-described "mom and cyberspace lawyer" and author of "A Parents' Guide to the Internet ... and How to Protect Your Children in Cyberspace."

For Aftab, the bottom line is communication. Long before children know how to type they should know - because their parents have taught them - what's appropriate and what's not, she believes.

They should know that looking at adult stuff is a waste of their time. Aftab hopes that if children happen on something they know shouldn't be viewed, they'll say "Ugh" and move on to something else.

Cassutto believes it is important to build trust between a parent and child and teacher and students. "The idea is to communicate with your young person," he says. "That's the key."

related stories:

-- Libraries' policy vary on access for children

-- Filters

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