Online dangers, offspring protection

Security: Parents can find allies on the family computer to protect their children from harm on the Internet.

May 10, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

You're a good parent.

Over the years you've dutifully carted the youngsters to school and soccer games, muddled through math homework and even managed to stutter through a birds-and-bees talk.

But now the kids are spending hours in cyberspace -- a subject that your parental rule book doesn't cover.

You've heard that the Internet is the place where the two teen-agers who shot up and booby-trapped their high school in Littlleton, Colo., learned to make bombs, where racists and perverts lurk behind every mouse click, where your kids can find a less delicate version of your birds-and-bees lesson -- complete with illustrations.

Now, government officials and educators say they can help.

"When it comes to the Internet, too many parents feel now they are faced with a false choice between unplugging the computer in the family room, or spending every moment of their lives looking over their child's shoulder to make sure they are not wandering into some dangerous online alleyway," Vice President Al Gore said last week.

Then he unveiled plans for a comprehensive online resource for parents that will put safety tips and tools "one click away."

Worrying is common among Information Age parents. An estimated 17 million minors are online, and a survey released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showed that 78 percent of parents are concerned about what their children are seeing and the personal information they might divulge. And that poll was conducted months before the shootings in Littleton.

Almost as many parents said the Internet helps their children complete homework assignments and contains "useful, fascinating" information.

"Parents are juggling the dream and the nightmare of the Internet," said Joseph Turow, who led the Annenberg study of 1,102 computer-owning parents with children aged 8 to 17.

At the heart of the Internet's perceived Jekyll-and-Hyde personality is adults' underlying insecurity about the technology. According to a new Time/CNN poll, 62 percent of teen-agers say their parents knew little or nothing about their online activities.

"It doesn't mean that parents don't care or are uninterested in what their kids do," said Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard at a summit on the American family and the Internet last week in Washington.

"It's just that in a very real sense the old teen-age complaint is true, 'My parents just don't understand.' It's a gap between the young and old. I think about it every time my mother asks me to program her VCR."

Kennard announced that the FCC has created a Web site with information on parental control technologies such as the V-chip for television sets, cable box locks, 900 telephone number blocking and Internet software filters that block objectionable Web sites.

A day later, Gore announced that 15 of the nation's top Internet companies -- responsible for about 95 percent of the Internet traffic -- would create an online clearinghouse where parents could find out more about Web site filtering technologies and report suspicious or criminal activity.

The Parents' Protection Page is expected to go live in July and is backed by online heavyweights including America Online, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Disney.

American Online and a growing number of other Internet service providers are offering parents tools to block objectionable Web sites and e-mail before they reach the home.

Many parents are taking steps to monitor or shield their children from objectionable areas of the Web. The Annenberg survey found that nearly one-third of wired families have installed filtering software such as Surf-Watch, Net Nanny and Cyber Patrol on their computers.

Such software is designed to block Web sites that contain nudity, profanity, illegal drugs, hate speech, violence, gambling and other toxic material.

(If your Internet provider doesn't provide this service, PC Magazine tested commercial filters this month and recommended Cyber Patrol 4.0.)

Other software tools, such as Cyber Snoop, create a tamperproof log of every mouse click. Clicking the History button on most Web browsers will provide nearly the same thing.

But parents should remember that technical solutions are imperfect at best. Even the most vigilant filter can allow a bad Web site to slip by. And filters have been known to block legitimate online news sources and sites that deal with information on subjects such as breast cancer.

Enterprising teen-age hackers have created tools to circumvent these digital padlocks. Of course, teens can always go to a friend's house where Net access isn't under parental lock and key.

"I think the best thing to do is get beyond your embarrassment over the technology and have a frank talk with your child," advises Ellen L. Wolock, managing editor of Children's Software Revue, which tackles the subject in its new issue.

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