Some parts of Internet children shouldn't surf

HOME COMPUTING

March 06, 1995|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

When they hear about youngsters on the Internet, parents often conjure up images of kids chatting with scientists, downloading pictures of Jupiter from a NASA database or finding electronic pen pals in countries around the world.

Logging onto the Net, a commercial on-line service or a local bulletin board can be an exciting, entertaining and educational experience for children and teen-agers. But parents shouldn't necessarily assume that all is well because the kids are in the basement or their rooms tapping away on the keyboard.

The telecommunications world was created by adults and it can be a very adult place. The point-and-click software that makes it easy to download pictures of the Space Shuttle from NASA's superb archives makes it just as easy to log onto Playboy's home page on the World Wide Web and download the Playmate of the Month centerfold. And that's pretty tame compared to some of the stuff floating around out there on the millions of computer systems that make up cyberspace. It's just as easy to subscribe to a news group called alt.sports.baseball.orioles as it is to sign up for one called alt.sex.bestiality.barney.

Likewise, the anonymity of electronic mail makes it almost impossible to know who your correspondents really are. From time to time, you'll read horror stories about pedophiles who use electronic bulletin boards and news groups to make contact and set up meetings with their young victims. Even the chat sessions on the major on-line services may contain material that's questionable for youngsters.

As a journalist and parent, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I detest censorship in any form. I'm particularly worried about a Senate bill sponsored by Nebraska Democrat Jim Exon that would expand FCC regulations covering obscene audiotext to all content carried by all electronic providers. Called the Communications Decency Act of 1995, it would make carriers and on-line services criminally responsible for anything that passes through their systems and would probably shut down the information highway altogether.

On the other hand, as a parent I'm concerned because my kids are constantly bombarded by material that I think is questionable for young people. Prime time TV is the worst offender in this regard, but at least with television, a parent can easily see what the kids are watching and say yes or no. It's much harder to figure out what's happening on-line.

Don't lock up modem

This doesn't mean you should lock up your modem and send the kids back to playing video games. But just as you kept an eye on your children when they were little and told them how to behave around strangers, you should have some idea of where they're venturing electronically and set up some rules for their conduct on-line.

On-line systems fall into three general categories -- commercial on-line services, electronic bulletin boards and the Internet -- although the distinctions are continually blurring.

Commercial systems such as Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online generally do the best job of controlling their content, but they all have forums where adult topics are discussed. Prodigy, which has occasionally been involved in some heavy-handed censorship over the last few years, also gives parents the best ability to control youngsters' access to sensitive areas.

Most of the country's 60,000 electronic bulletin board systems (BBS) are local operations run by individuals or small businesses and consist of a single PC and phone line or two.

Bulletin boards

They're often labors of love for the people who run them, and they're frequently dedicated to special interests, such as engineering or music. Their content depends entirely on the system operator; it's impossible to generalize about them. But be aware that many popular boards have large collections of erotic photographs.

The Internet is a worldwide network of computer networks where anything goes. An account with an Internet provider gives you access to thousands of computer systems around the world, most of which are run by universities, research organizations and businesses. The content of each system and access to it depends on the organization that owns it. The Net is the highway that gets you there and provides universal electronic mail services. Once very difficult to navigate, the Net has been tamed after a fashion by World Wide Web software, which has turned the operators of its systems into electronic publishers whose material can be accessed with easy-to-use programs called browsers.

Distinctions between the three types of systems are growing more difficult to make every day. Many local bulletin boards have Internet e-mail connections and news group capabilities.

The commercial on-line services all are part of the Internet e-mail system and provide access to Internet news groups. Last month Prodigy became the first to add the World Wide Web to its offerings -- and hence full access to the Internet itself. The other -- services will follow suit.

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