THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : GUIDE TO INTERNET ACCESS : How to Help Children Become 'Net Smart'

When I took my family to New York last year, we caught a Broadway play and visited museums and walked about town--and we encountered, inevitably, adult theaters and bookstores and other places that were not appropriate for kids to enter. My kids know that such places are off-limits. They also know it's a good idea to beware of high-crime areas in a place like New York. And they know the safe way to behave around strangers and in public: It's all part of being "street smart."

In the same way, kids who hang around the Internet and on-line services need to be "net smart." The rules, in many ways, are similar to those in the real world. Be careful how you behave around strangers and stay away from potentially dangerous areas.

Before getting into the danger zones, let me emphasize that cyberspace, like a great city, is full of wonderful places for children. The vast majority of the sites on the Internet and commercial on-line services are safe. Some are downright wholesome. Like any city, there are museums, universities, libraries, places to shop--even virtual churches, mosques and synagogues.

The good news is that it's extremely rare for a child to get into physical danger in cyberspace. The bad news is that there lots of places on-line that are not appropriate for children, and it's sometimes hard for parents to know how to keep their kids from wandering into inappropriate territory.

Areas of concern include World Wide Web sites, newsgroups and on-line "chat" areas on both the Internet and commercial on-line services. A chat area is like a party line where several people converse in real time by typing and reading comments that are instantly transmitted to all who are tuned in. Because they're live, chat sessions can be particularly troublesome, since there is no way to screen material before it's posted.

With few exceptions, the forums or bulletin boards on the commercial on-line service are appropriate for family viewing. If offensive material is posted, it's usually removed by the staff. That's not necessarily true with the chat sessions. And it definitely isn't true on the Internet which, unlike commercial services, is not maintained by a single company or organization. There are also some sexually explicit private bulletin boards which, in all but a few cases, attempt to keep children out.

The issue of protecting children on-line is different from that of on-line distribution of child pornography, where adults use on-line services to distribute images or descriptions of children engaged in sexual activities. Such material is illegal to produce, distribute or possess on-line or in any other form, regardless of whether it is made available to children.

There are basically three potential dangers to children on-line. First, it's possible for children to find material that is sexually explicit, violent or both. Anyone who knows where to look can find newsgroups and World Wide Web sites that feature sexually explicit descriptions or images. Some, like the sites operated by Playboy and Penthouse, are fairly mild by today's standards. Others contain obscenities that would be offensive to most adults and potentially disturbing to children.

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Another danger is that a child might do something that could create a risk, however slight, of physical molestation. There are a few cases in which pedophiles have used bulletin boards and chat sessions to lure a child into face-to-face encounters: A recent FBI sting operation caught several people allegedly using America Online to arrange such meetings.

It's important to remind children to never give out their full name, address, phone number or any other information that could identify them--even if they believe that the person they're in touch with is another child. When you "meet" someone on-line, you don't have the usual clues to determine their age or gender. A person who claims to be a 14-year-old girl could really be a 40-year-old man.

Children should never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they meet on-line without parental approval. If the parents agree to such a meeting, the first one should be in a public place with a parent present.

Finally, there is the issue of harassment and emotional abuse. Most people on-line are actually quite nice, but there are those who use abusive language or are otherwise hostile or belligerent. I've seen a few cases where children have been verbally insulted for asking innocent questions on a computer-related bulletin board.

There are basically two ways to protect your children on-line. The first is parental involvement. Talk to your children, establish rules and make it known that violation of the rules can lead to a suspension of their on-line privileges. Don't use the PC as an electronic baby-sitter. Stay involved with your kids' on-line activities.

You don't have to stand over their shoulders at all times. But if you're at all concerned about what your kids are doing on-line, keep the machine in a family room rather than the child's bedroom. Children are far less likely to do something they know is wrong if other family members are walking in and out of the room.

There are also technological solutions. The commercial on-line services all have parental control, or "blocking," features that allow parents to keep the children out of certain areas. You can, for example, block out all chat sessions or restrict your child from entering certain bulletin boards. The Internet currently doesn't have such controls, but there are now software packages designed to provide some of those functions.

Surfwatch Software, for example, has a Macintosh and Windows program that blocks Internet newsgroups, Web sites, file libraries and chat areas known to contain sexually explicit material. The program knows of about 1,600 such sites and is also able to block other areas based on certain combinations of words that are generally associated with X-rated areas. The program is automatically updated while you're on-line.

CyberSitter, which works only with Windows, offers similar features as well as the ability to block access to all graphics. These programs only work if you have a direct connection to the Internet. The commercial on-line services are also developing technology to allow parents to prevent children from using the services to access certain areas of the Internet.

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A coalition of organizations, computer companies, Internet providers and on-line services is working to develop the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) which would be a "viewpoint-neutral technology platform that will empower organizations and individuals to categorize and selectively access information according to their own needs," according to coalition spokesperson. There are a number of proposals floating around, but the idea is to provide a labeling system that makes it possible for parents to automatically block certain types of sites.

Anyone interested in learning more about how parents can protect children in cyberspace can call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678 for a free copy of my booklet "Child Safety on the Information Highway." The full text of that booklet, as well as links to organizations and companies working on this issue, is available from my World Wide Web home page (http://www.omix.com/magid).

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On-Line Rules for Kids

* Do not give out personal information such as address, telephone number, parents' work addresses or phone numbers, or the name and location of your school without your parents' permission.

* Tell your parents right away if you come across any information that makes you feel uncomfortable.

* Never agree to get together with someone you "meet" on-line without first checking with your parents. If they agree to the meeting, be sure that it is in a public place, and bring your mother or father along.

* Never send a person a picture or anything else without first checking with your parents.

* Do not respond to any messages that are mean or in any way make you feel uncomfortable: It is not your fault if you get a message like that. If you do, tell your parents right away so they can contact the on-line service.

* Talk with your parents and set up rules for going on-line. Decide upon the time of day, the length of time and appropriate areas to visit.

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