Its your home, your computer, your kids and it's your job to police the Internet

December 09, 1997|By SUSAN REIMER

I HAVE NO illusions about what kids are doing on the Internet.

If they are like my kids, they are chatting online with friends they left at school not 10 minutes earlier; they are downloading pictures of Michael Jordan and Keanu Reeves, and they are cruising sites about their favorite sports and movies.

What they are not doing is researching homework, posting short stories or making international pen-pals.

Our kids are wasting lots of time hanging out on the street corners of cyberspace. Some are looking for trouble out there, some are just mildly curious about it, and some are innocently stumbling into it.

But there is no doubt that children from 8 to 18 are seeing things and meeting people on the Internet that their parents would not approve of.

I know this is true because a bunch of boys in my neighborhood once spent a day off from school swapping dirty pictures online.

I know this is true because, while searching the Internet for information that would prove to my niece that "Sesame Street" is not planning to kill off Bert, I stumbled on a pornographic story starring the Muppets.

I know this is true because my 13-year-old son -- whom I have so electronically "blocked" that he can barely move online -- received junk e-mail offering him 10 minutes of free viewing on a live sex site.

And I know this is true because there was a three-day conference in Washington last week on this new worry. Industry and government got together to decide which of them could best gird parents against this new threat while protecting this new source of free speech from censorship.

What I gleaned from all the talk in Washington is this: Put the family computer on the kitchen counter and only let your kids surf the Web while you are making dinner, because neither government nor the private sector can watch out for your child the way you can.

Being a parent today requires an understanding of the Internet. It is to us what television was to our parents.

Twice as many households with children own personal computers as those without. They are the target audience for the pitch to subscribe to the Internet for its educational value. Already, 10 million kids use it regularly at home, at school, at the library or at the home of a friend.

The best guess is that there are 1.2 million sites for these kids to visit, with more than 5,000 new ones coming on line each month. Anybody with a modem and some software can put up a Web site. My brother-in-law has a Web site.

It is not humanly possible to check each of these sites and rate their acceptability, even if we could agree on what was acceptable. The Internet equivalent of standard G, PG, PG-13, R and X ratings is a long way off.

Parents can purchase software that blocks questionable sites, but these are clumsy programs, simultaneously blocking live sex, sex education and the Essex Library sites in one electronic impulse, and making huge, valuable chunks of the Internet invisible.

When the Supreme Court struck down the law Congress passed to keep the Internet safe and clean -- rightly dismissing it as censorship -- lawmakers, the computer industry and parents were sent back to square one.

Simply urging parents to monitor their children's Internet use may not seem much of an answer. But it is the only answer. Parents cannot wait for a balance to be struck between government regulation and industry self-policing while their kids are zipping around the Internet on a virtual skateboard.

To look over their shoulders while they search the Internet for a history report is ridiculously time-consuming and, frankly, not very good child-rearing. There is another way.

We must talk to our kids about what is out there and give them the tools to protect themselves. And we must convince them that they can come to us about what they see and hear on the Internet without fearing that we will pull the plug.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence J. Magid, who addressed the Washington Internet summit meeting, offered these few, simple rules for online safety:

Never give out identifying information -- home address, school name or telephone number -- in a chat room, a bulletin board or in an e-mail message to someone you do not know.

Never agree to meet someone you have met online without checking with your parents. If a meeting is arranged, it should be in a public place and you should never go alone.

Never respond to a message or bulletin board items that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent or threatening, or that make you feel uncomfortable.

Following these rules won't prevent your child from finding Muppet pornography or seeing dirty pictures or receiving X-rated e-mail. If you want to protect your children from these things, you need to decide whether you want the Internet in your home at all. But these rules can help protect your children from the bad people lurking on those cyberspace street corners.

And learn about the Internet.

It is overwhelming and confusing and you don't have time and you feel stupid when you try. But if you are letting your children go there, you must know what is waiting for them.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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