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Net-proofing your kids

Kids are growing up fast these days, drinking coffee, talking on cell phones, getting tattoos, preparing their own meals, staying out late, and wearing clothes that you’re not comfortable seeing on a 20-year-old.

Kids are growing up fast these days, drinking coffee, talking on cell phones, getting tattoos, preparing their own meals, staying out late, and wearing clothes that you’re not comfortable seeing on a 20-year-old.

At least part of the reason is the fact that in many homes, both parents have full-time jobs. As a result kids have very little supervision compared to past generations, and some added responsibilities as well.

For the most part parents are happy if their kids bring home decent grades and the house hasn’t burned to the ground when they get home. But while there is nothing wrong with trusting a preteen or teenager to make a few more decisions, there are some things about computers and the Internet that parents should know to protect their kids at any age.

Today kids are street-proofed in school, gym teachers and guidance counsellors give them the sex talk, and schools and police forces work together to offer programs for drug and alcohol awareness, violence, and other youth-related issues.

When it comes to computers, however, kids are generally on their own.

And they typically have a huge head start on their parents in this particular department – a lot of older people are still baffled by the most basic Internet tasks, like surfing the Web or sending an e-mail. They don’t understand chat-rooms, blog boards, messenger services and other open communication tools out there, and the very real safety risks that they can pose.

For younger kids, there is no shortage of software to block out sites that contain violence, profanity, nudity and other adult material. As long as parents don’t use something obvious like the name of the family pet or the home phone number as the password to unlock this software, you are usually pretty safe when it comes to browsing the Web.

Symantec, the producer of the Norton line of security and disk repair software, recommends talking to kids about what sites are okay to visit – completely forgetting rule one of parenting; the sites you place off limits will inevitably become the sites that kids will most want to see. Reverse psychology isn’t going to work in this situation either.

Symantec also recommends placing the family computer in a high-traffic area of the house to discourage kids from visiting certain sites, but that trick only works when other people are actually home.

One piece of advice that makes perfect sense, however, is to never, under any circumstances, give out personal information on the Web – no last names, no phone numbers, no addresses, no school information, and especially no photographs.

In addition to sharing personal information, they should never agree to meet someone they meet online through a chat room, a news group, instant messaging, or e-mailing without supervision.

If someone they meet seems strange, rude or aggressive, kids should tell their parents. Most chat room hosts will block people out for that kind behaviour.

More and more frequently, the media is reporting stories of adults posing as kids in chat rooms in order to meet boys and girls, and then arranging to meet them without their parents’ knowledge.

The kids that have been targeted generally range in age from preteens to young adults. All of them thought they would be meeting someone close to their age. And while most of these stories end with an arrest before anything bad happens, there have been some well-documented tragedies.

As recently as last week, an 11-year-old girl in Toronto was abducted overnight by a 34-year-old she met in an Internet chat room. He’s going to jail, but the damage was done.

It’s scary stuff for parents, but getting rid of the computer or imposing strict rules regarding its use won’t be effective in most cases. Kids will just use computers at school or at a friend’s house, and parents will have lost a valuable opportunity to sit down with their kids and explain the situation.

The bottom line is that kids are trusting of others, secretive around their parents, and can be sneaky when it comes to obeying rules. It’s always been that way, and any person who says they always did exactly what their parents told them is probably lying through their teeth.

The only weapon in this battle is knowledge. The more a parent knows about their children’s computer habits, and the nature of the Internet itself, the better prepared they will be to ensure that the home computer won’t become another backdoor for strangers to break into your house.

The Media Awareness Network, a non-profit group that educates children and parents about media issues, has put together a starter kit for parents that teaches them about safety on the Web, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging and newsgroups.

There is also information on finding kids’ sites, kid-friendly search engines, advice on filling out online registration forms, filtering software tools and tracking software. There are case studies, a look at different kinds of online predators, and procedures for reporting offensive and illegal content.

There is also a tip sheet on managing net use at home, an Internet glossary to help parents understand what’s what, and Internet checklists for kids in different age groups.

They also have games for younger kids to help teach them the ropes.

Net Nanny has been providing parents with parental control software since 1994, and is one of the most trusted names in this Internet security sideline. It’s not freeware unfortunately, but $40 isn’t much to pay for peace of mind.

Other examples of parental control software include SafetySurf at , SurfWatch at , Hyperdyne’s ‘Snitch’ at , Access Control Software at , CyberSitter at , Cyberpatrol at , and InterGO at In addition, some Internet providers like AOL and Sympatico offer parental control features for parents.

Better safe than sorry.