Online and off limits
One highlight on my reel of "Not-So-Great Moments in Parenting" takes place in the winter of 2009. I had just put newborn Lily down for a morning nap and was going to try to take a shower before she woke up. I set up a not-quite-4-year-old Eli with a Spiderman cartoon via YouTube on the computer in my bedroom so he would be close by while I was in the bathroom. He was happy to be allowed screen time and even happier that it would feature the super hero that was currently his favorite. I emerged from the bathroom refreshed and relieved to hear that Lily was not crying and the "Spiderman" theme song was still playing. Then, I got a look at the screen.
Some sort of slide show was going on.
"In the chill of the night ... at the scene of the crime ..."
Images of scantily clad women were flashing on my monitor!
"He appears out of sight ... he arrives just in time!"
I couldn't seem to hit the escape key fast enough.
"Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a Spider can ..."
Eli really had no idea what he had just seen. To him, a woman looking like she was about to pull off her bra just meant a baby was about to eat. But to me, it was a wake-up call that online, my son could go from G-rated entertainment to X-rated content in just one click.
Of course, the risk of encountering pornography is not the only danger that awaits children on the Internet. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Interactive Services Association states that in addition to being exposed to inappropriate content, children can also be targets of crime and exploitation online. A child might provide information or arrange an encounter that could risk his or her safety, could encounter email or chat/bulletin board messages that are harassing and possibly do something that has a negative financial consequences, such as giving out a parent's credit card number.
The solution, however, is not to make the Internet completely off-limits. Playing online has many potential benefits for children too. To tell children to stop using these services would be like telling them not to play outside because children are sometimes hurt on the playground. Instead, parents should try to instruct children about the benefits and dangers of cyberspace and to educate them in "netiquette."
When setting up limits to online access, Dr. Shawn Guilling, a licensed psychologist and instructor of psychology at Southeast Missouri State University, points out potential pitfalls. Parents "don't want to be too restrictive, running the risk of pushing their child to access forbidden information just to spite them or just to see what 'they weren't allowed to see' ... severe restrictions on screen time can lead to sneaking around to accomplish the same goal at other friends' houses."
Sharon Anderson, youth services coordinator at Cape Girardeau Public Library, supervises the children who use the library's computers every day. "The library uses filtering software in compliance with CIPA (Children's Internet Protection Act) and NCIPA (Neighborhood Children's Internet Protection Act). The filtering software blocks image files that are obscene, pornographic or harmful to minors. In addition, we have software that allows us to monitor the computers as children and teens are using them. We can call up the screen of a computer that is in use. Library staff cannot watch every screen shot of every computer -- nor would we want to -- but staff can take a peek when there is suspicious activity, several teens or preteens giggling around a computer, for example."
However, even with this level of protection, "I know from past experience that no filtering software is perfect," Anderson says. "The presence of filtering software can lull parents into a sense of complacency. My suggestion to parents is to educate themselves and to monitor their child's Internet use." More children's Internet safety tips can be found at www.capelibrary.org.
Another excellent place parents and children can visit online is www.netsmartzkids.org. This site, according to its creators, "is an interactive, educational program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) that provides age-appropriate resources to help teach children how to be safer on- and offline. The program is designed for children ages 5 to 17, parents and guardians, educators and law enforcement. With resources such as videos, games, activity cards and presentations, NetSmartz entertains while it educates." If parents explore this site with their children, they can, as Dr. Guilling puts it, "lay the groundwork for what is the norm in the household and what is acceptable access."