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Every parent wants kids to be tech-savvy and to feel at ease with the computer. But that doesn't mean you want them to accidentally end up at adults-only web sites that are dangerous or unhealthy.
As a parent, all the hazards your kids can run into in the online world -- such as hate sites, pornography and predators -- can seem overwhelming. But you can keep your kids safe while they explore the Internet.
Larry Magid, founder of safekids.com, says playing it safe online just takes extra vigilance and planning on your part and, in some cases, the same common sense you use to keep kids safe in the real world. Here's how to make sure kids surf smart on the Internet.
Know the dangers
Before you can truly protect your children, you have to know what you're up against. Unfortunately, there's a lot of bad stuff mixed in with all the good stuff on the Internet. Everyone's heard about the pervasiveness of pornography and content involving violence or dangerous behavior. But there are lesser known sites to watch out for as well. For example, while your child is doing a search for a homework assignment, she might unwittingly stumble upon some troublesome pro-anorexia sites -- typically called pro-ana -- which are communities of anorexia sufferers who actually encourage each other to get and stay dangerously thin. Inappropriate content can pop up in Internet searches at the most unexpected times. You might be helping your daughter search for games to play with her friends by using keywords like "games for young girls." Sure, you'll find a lot of real ideas for games -- in addition to a slew of creepy sex and disturbing bondage sites.
Lay ground rules
Now that you have an idea of what lurks online, you can design an acceptable use policy for your home computer. These rules should be in place whether your child is researching a school report or browsing for fun. Here are some guidelines:
Decide whom your kids can interact with on the Internet. Consider sitting down with your child to make a Safe List of legitimate friends they can chat with online or whose personal homepage or blog (a.k.a online journal) they can access. But if you take this approach, make it clear that chat rooms with strangers are off limits. Rules about not talking to strangers should still apply online -- perhaps more so because harmful strangers can mask their identity much more easily online than in person.
Come to an agreement about the activities your kids can do online. Can they surf only for information related to school or homework? Can they chat online with a small group of approved friends on a web site? To also get their buy-in, ask them what sites they want to visit regularly, review them together and add them to your Safe List. You can even create a folder of favorite bookmarks that are easily accessible from the computer's web browser. Personalize the folder by naming it something like: "[your daughter's name] favorite sites."
Determine what content your kids can view. For example, you might require kids to conduct searches through kid-friendly search engines such as Yahooligans rather than search engines that scour the entire Internet. Site-blocking software might be a good option for younger children, which you can use to limit which search engines your kids can access.
You can also take advantage of free features in your browser. For example, you can set Internet Explorer to block content based on ratings from the Internet Content Rating Association (icra.org), create a list of pre-approved sites and set a supervisor password. To do this, go to Tools, Internet Options, Content. Click "enable" to open the Content Advisor box, where you'll find lots of options.
Additionally, your ISP (Internet Service Provider) likely offers parental control tools to help you limit where your kids can go on the Internet. But beware: Parental control tools are automated and subjective, so good content is filtered out along with the bad. Plus, Internet-savvy kids can find online tips for disabling them.
Determine what time of day your child will be allowed to surf. Consider building web time into your child's schedule so you can be on hand to answer questions or keep tabs on surfing activities.
If you wouldn't turn your young children loose at the mall, you probably shouldn't turn them loose online, either. So try putting the computer in a room that has high traffic, such as the family room. That way, your kids will always be within eyesight while they surf. Better yet, pull up your own chair to the computer and show your kids -- especially the younger ones -- how to find the good stuff online that's appropriate for them. "Surf with your kids," Magid says. "That teaches them how to use the Internet safely."
Talk about the rules
You might not be able to police your children's Internet use all the time. After all, they're probably online at school and at friends' houses. That's why it's important to build trust with your children, and the best way to do that is to explain the rationale behind the rules you've established and they helped you create. Children are more likely to follow your rules if they understand that breaking them might put them in danger. But be open to their ideas. Make it clear that if your child wants to change the usage policy -- by adding new sites to the approved list, for example -- he can approach you to talk about it.
Watch for warning signs -- and teach kids to do the same
If you notice your child has gotten uncommonly good at screen switching whenever you walk in the room, find out what she's trying to hide. Get familiar with popular chat room acronyms such as "POS," which means "parent over shoulder" -- and is often a sign that your child is discussing something or swapping pictures over a web site that she doesn't want you to see.
Kids should have their own list of warning signs that indicate they might be in danger. Teach children to notify you immediately if a stranger in a chat room requests personal information such as name, address, gender, phone number or photos -- or tries to start a conversation about something inappropriate.
Magid says parents should keep in mind which threats pose the greatest danger. "Obviously, no parent wants their kids looking at pornography sites. But what kids say online is far more important than what they see," Magid says. "Parents need to be concerned about kids protecting their privacy and anonymity."
Above all, cultivate a close, communicative relationship with your children. Get to know their friends and online habits. Invite conversations about what they have seen online and what they know about how the Internet works. Magid says this kind of close interaction with kids should be part of a larger strategy.
"The first rule of thumb is to be a good parent," he says. "It sounds obvious, but eating dinner together, helping kids do their homework -- those things have more to do with keeping kids safe than anything else."