February 1998 – Parental concerns continue to escalate regarding cyberspace predators, Internet smut and other forms of unwanted, unapproved and unmonitored online cultural intrusion affecting their children. But projections indicate that the wary had better beware: as technology continues to penetrate American households, so will trouble.
According to USA Today, between 1991 and 1997 the percentage of U.S. households with computers jumped from 24% to over 38%. By the year 2001 that figure is expected to climb to almost 48%. And with that computer boom comes increased access to the Internet. Between 1991 and 1997, the percentage of households that were online rose from a mere 2% to 21.4%. Within five years, homes connected to the Internet are expected to account for 37.9% of the total. In simpler terms, that means that the number of teenagers online will more than triple by the year 2002.
Even now teens are spending more time surfing the Internet. A poll taken last summer of 1,000 homes that had a personal computer showed that teenagers (ages 13-17) were spending over eight hours a week online.
Some of that time was spent exploring pornography sites. According to a survey in Grip, a magazine written by students, 79% of students have intentionally downloaded pornography while surfing the Internet at home, and 62% had stumbled across porn sites unintentionally. The survey showed that students had also accessed pornography while at school and at public libraries.
In the America of the 1990s, it seems as if every area of life has become more complicated and more dangerous. Nevertheless, when it comes to the wonders of the World Wide Web, there are still simple things parents can do to protect their children. Among them:
➤ Make the Internet world a smaller place for children. The number of cyberspace places where an innocent mind can roam multiplies daily. Therefore, when a home goes online, experts suggest that parents take immediate steps to funnel children to the safest places.
In its pamphlet, Parents’ Guide to the Internet, the U.S. Department of Education recommends that parents check out Internet blocking software or online services that will filter out offensive materials and sites, restrict incoming E-mail, and limit access accounts to specified services.
➤ Teach children to be wary as they surf the Internet. No software or online protection is fool-proof. For years parents have trained their children to be “street-wise,” and now the parents of today must do the same for Internet travel.
Jon Katz, author of Virtuous Reality and media critic for Wired magazine, said life today has changed dramatically from life in the 1960s. “It’s not like 30 years ago when you could shut off the source of trouble. Information comes in under the door today,” he said in USA Today. “Parents need to take the time to teach their kids to deal with it.”
There are numerous ways to do this. One is to talk about the potential dangers. “Every time I come across an article (about children harmed through the Internet), I show it to [my children],” says Ted Lanin, president of Fairfield Research Inc. “To me, that’s a more productive way than to forbid them to be online.”
Also, say experts, be specific about what activities are considered no-no’s. Since the people that children will meet online are not always who or what they say they are, Parents’ Guide recommends that kids should at least be taught:
• Never to give out personal information (such as name, age, home address, phone number, school name or location, friends’ names, etc.) or use a credit card online without a parent’s permission.
• Never to share their password, even with friends.
• Never to arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they meet online unless a parent approves of the meeting and accompanies the child to a public place.
• Never to respond to messages that make them feel confused or uncomfortable. The child should immediately end the communication and tell a trusted adult.
• Never to use bad or insulting language.
➤ Set clear ground rules – and put them in writing. Children should understand that using a computer is a privilege, not a right. “If a youngster is doing well in school and it’s not taking up all their time, [technology] can be used as a reward,” said Robert Butterworth, a child psychologist in Los Angeles. But the privilege should be suspended according to preset rules when computer-use begins to interfere with other things.
Katz agreed. He said the Internet becomes dangerous when “ grades start falling, and [children] become broody and withdrawn or obsessive and addictive and can’t walk away from it.”
Those preset rules should be crystal clear. Parents’ Guide suggests answering such questions as: What kinds of sites are children allowed to visit? What areas are off-limits? How much time can they spend and when? Can they spend money online, and if so, how much?
➤ Supervise your child. Children make mistakes, get confused or become down-right curious. That’s why experts stress that nothing can substitute for a parent’s supervision of a child who has access to the Internet.
The computer, for example, can be kept in the living room. Butterworth told USA Today that while parents don’t need to be paranoid or remain perched on their children’s shoulder as they use the Internet, “looking over the shoulder occasionally” is fine.
Check your kid’s E-mail periodically, Butterworth also suggested. In his opinion, parents have a right to know from whom their teens – especially the younger ones – are getting messages.
Parents should become informed about Internet access outside the home as well. They should ask about the Internet use policy at school and at the local library.