Net filters, Web sites help shield children from predators

By Jeff Smith, Rocky Mountain News

Englewood physician Gregory Papadeas already has gone through the experience of his 9-year-old seeing an obscene image inadvertently pop up on a computer screen. She told him about it.

He’s already gone through the frank talk with his 13-year-old daughter about the pros and cons of social-networking sites such as MySpace.

“We felt it put her at risk and exposed her to things we as parents were not comfortable with.”

He said his daughter agreed she shouldn’t participate at this time.

Still, Papadeas recently was looking for even more information about how to keep his children safe on the Internet. “It’s an important topic,” he said.

Papadeas and his wife have four children ages 6 to 13, “so we’re in the thick of the whole thing. It’s a whole new world. We want to make sure that together we identify the bad things.”

Bad things can range from Internet pornography to online bullying to being stalked by strangers and sexual predators.

The good news for parents is there are plenty of resources to help out.

“There’s never been a time when parents have had more tools to protect their children,” Adam Thierer, who has written extensively about Internet safety for the Progress & Freedom Foundation, said at a recent communications summit.

Tools include Internet filters or “parental controls” and Web sites that offer videos, handbooks and other educational materials.

But Thierer and other experts point out that it’s unclear to what degree parents are aware of the tools, are comfortable with the Internet and know exactly what their kids are doing online.

Mitch Bowling, Comcast’s general manager of online business, echoes many experts when he says that parents need to be engaged and “try not be intimidated” by what they don’t know.

“My message to parents is to be proactive,” Bowling said.

Take time to talk to children. Take time to learn how to set up parental controls. Seek additional help if needed.

As a father of three children ages 4 to 12, Bowling blocks Internet sites that he doesn’t want his children to see. He sets up automated controls that enable his children to surf the Internet only between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. He spends time talking with his children and telling them never to respond to an e-mail or an instant message from a stranger.

Of course, strategies change depending on a child’s age, but experts urge parents to get involved as soon as their children start using the Internet.

Linda Young, a Seattle psychologist Qwest Communications has hired as a consultant, advocates using the Internet in an open space in the house and working closely with children on the rules.

Mutual agreements are ideal but not always possible. Parents must be clear about the rules and practice what they preach, Young said.

She warns against parents adopting authoritarian positions, which she says “drives kids underground” and encourages them to “figure out ways to beat the system.”

Young talks about parental controls in terms of “walls and windows.”

“As they earn your trust, show them your trust by giving them more freedom,” she said.

Even with all the bad stuff out there, Young is optimistic and believes research shows that Internet safety is winning the battle.

She cited a report this year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that found the majority of teens actively manage their online profiles to protect sensitive information from the “unwanted gaze of strangers, parents and other adults.”

For example, teens rarely post information such as addresses or cell-phone numbers that would help strangers locate them.

The most recent Pew survey, released in mid-October, found that while 32 percent of online teens had been contacted by someone they didn’t know, only 7 percent of those encounters had made them feel scared or uncomfortable.

But some troubling indicators exist in this year’s surveys as well, a reason for parents to remain vigilant.

Nearly two-thirds of the teens with online profiles believe a motivated person could eventually identify them from the information they provide on the Internet.

One in three teens online has experienced online “harassment,” such as threatening messages, having an embarrassing photo posted without their permission or being subject to rumors placed on the Internet.

And teens who post photos online are more likely to be contacted by strangers – with girls more likely than boys to report the contact made them feel scared or uncomfortable.

Read the rest of the article for the following information:

  • Parental tips
  • 7 Reasons why good kids do bad things on the Internet
  • Kids’ sample rules for online safety
  • How to set-up parental controls
  • more Online Safety resources