Thomas Hollowell - Author, Athlete, Entrepreneur, World Traveler

Protecting Kids Online

For children and adults alike, Cyberspace is a universe awaiting discovery. With so much information and media zipping along the Superhighway, it might seem an overwhelming endeavor to filter out harmful material from reaching your child. However, with new software, parent-monitoring systems, and law enforcement on your side, the task just got easier. And, as you might have guessed, Apple continues to do its part to ensure that your family remains in the know and stays safe.

The Internet, originally piecemealed from the ground up, launched at warp speed. And, before long, we were sending files, chatting, and sharing videos. Presently, we can view sections of the world through satellites. Because of these freedoms, perverse attempts to exploit the unknowing have meant that law and order have always run a grueling race to keep up. Consequently, parents have to do what they can in order to thwart online abusers.

Children aren’t the only ones at risk. Teenagers, who often have more Internet freedom, are more likely to use the Internet to search for companionship. They are also more likely to keep secrets about their online activities. Teenagers need to be taught what online responsibility entails. If they come across dangerous or illegal online activity, they should know how to recognize it and report it to an adult. An understanding of what constitutes “inappropriate” is only accomplished through educative means. In other words, children and teenagers should be made aware of the dangers of the Internet: exposure to violent material, harassment, computer viruses, legal trouble, or illicit sexual invitations.

Search engines do not necessarily filter out sexually explicit or dangerous materials; therefore, it is up to the adults in the household to understand their own computers. If you do not understand your computer or the Internet, then you might consider taking a class. You might also ask your son or daughter to give you lessons. You’ll be surprised how much they’ll want to show you. Ask them questions and find out which sites they often frequent and find out who are their online
buddies.

For children and teenagers alike, who often have their own laptops or desktop computers, you might also consider having your Internet connection located in a public area. This will help you monitor what they are doing and prevent them from getting off task. While chatting with others, learning about the world, and discovering new ideas should be encouraged, such small arrangements will increase the odds that your child stays safe online.

Policing units recently set up by the federal government are working to foil the plans of abusers. The federally-sponsored website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (
http://www.missingkids.com) contains a plethora of resources for parents; the national Cyber Tip Line (http://www.cybertipline.com) is where parents can report supposed abuse.

Besides physical intervention with your children’s online activities, you might consider other alternatives as well. The first would be to contact your Internet Support Provider (ISP) to see if they have any parental settings that you’ll be able to control. You might also consider any number of special software programs, available for PC or Mac, which will help to curtail explicit materials from reaching your child. Often, these programs will also prevent them from sharing certain data, such as real names, addresses, phone numbers, and financial information.

These tools are a worthwhile investment for any family. But, they should never be considered 100% effective. Sometimes quality, informative websites are blocked. Parents are then required to manually pick and choose which ones they will allow through. Furthermore, many children and teenagers chat on peer-to-peer networks, where materials passing back and forth (files, pictures, sound, and video) are not always scanned before they are opened. Abusers can easily gain access to these groups and pretend to be “one of the gang”. And, e-mails can often contain spam, or inappropriate materials sent to random addresses.

Apple Computer, Inc. is leading the way on keeping families safe. The already-released Apple OSX Tiger and the much-anticipated Leopard operating system contain functions allowing parents to monitor and control what their children do online. In the family section (
http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/family/) of their website, they give a brief outline of their parental control software.

The best part about Mac’s operating system is that each family member can have their own account with pre-chosen settings. And, users can switch from one account to another should they need to access it without disturbing what another user was doing. Additionally, the Mac OSX system allows you to pick and choose what your children can access. Mac’s Tiger mail system also prevents children from receiving mail or files that do not appear on your “safe list”. Emails not on the list are sent to the parent first for approval before they are sent to the child. The new Leopard system will allow you to specify a time of day and length of time children can access the Internet. Additionally, this can be controlled via a remote connection. So, whether you are at home or in the office, you’ll always be aware of what’s going on. Apple also lists a special children’s Web browser on their website called BumperCar (
http://www.freeverse.com/bumpercar2) for parents and educators. Proactive measures and parent-child communication are the ounce of prevention worth more than a pound of cure.

Top 5 Rules for Children’s Internet Safety:
1. Never give out personal information.
2. Never send media (photos or videos) without permission.
3. Never agree to meet anyone who you have met online.
4. Tell parents about material or messages that make you feel nervous or angry.
Never pretend to be someone else online.

Appears in: ComputorEdge Magazine