Families face tangled Web when it comes to safety

Sunday, July 13, 2003

NEW YORK -- Considering that computers are in toddlers' day care classrooms and "Sesame Street" has a Web site, parents who want to educate their children about Internet safety better get an early start.

The first step is for the grown-ups themselves to become familiar with computers and the support that's available to them, advises Michael Sullivan, a police detective in Naperville, Ill., and author of "Safety Monitor: How To Protect Your Kids Online."

Internet service providers often offer both a help line and parental controls, says Sullivan, who worked with MSN 8 (Microsoft's Internet service) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop an Internet safety recognition program for law enforcement called "Cyber Safe City."

Some ISPs also assign appropriate-age ratings to Web content, much like the Motion Picture Association of America assigns ratings to movies.

Parents then need to remind their children about the general street-smart tips they've heard before and then link them to how they work on the World Wide Web.

Here are the rules, according to Sullivan: "Never give out your last name, address, phone number or where you go to school." Those bits of information make it too easy for Internet stalkers to figure out exactly who they are talking to.

But since the stalkers out there often are tech-savvy, they know how to cover their tracks.

"What's scary about the Internet ... is that the first time my kids went out to play alone -- that first time they went out the door -- it was a big thing, but at least I knew who the kids were they were going to play with," Sullivan says.

Sullivan suggests limiting children's first online contacts to friends and relatives, which will help develop positive and safe associations with the Internet instead of creating a climate of fear.

"You want kids to have e-mail access so they can communicate with grandma and grandpa. It's the same thrill for them (the children) as getting a letter in the mail," he says.

It's possible through some ISPs and e-mail services to limit what makes it into the "inbox" by specifying what return addresses are welcome.

"I'm not just worried about pornography, I'm worried about them (children) being targeted by marketers," says Robin Raskin, a technology consultant who is known as "the Internet mom."

The wireless, handheld gadgets that children are such fans of only complicate things because parents have less access to those computers than the family desktop, she adds. "As kids become even more savvy as digital people, the issues become more difficult."

But, Raskin says, the advantages that technology offers youngsters makes all the trouble of looking over their shoulders worth it.

Until children are 6, parents and caregivers should sit with them while they're online, says Raskin; after age 6, it's OK for children to have some privacy but with very specific boundaries. "I'm a big believer in the graduated approach to the Internet -- it's how I'd like driving to be handled."

Raskin urges parents to tell their children that their Internet use and destinations will be monitored.

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