Recently, there’s been a lot of anxiety about the safety of children while they explore the wonders of the Internet. The tension is particularly great when social networking sites such as teenchat.com, friendster.com and myspace.com, are mentioned.  With all of the speculation as to whether or not our children are at risk for becoming victims while using these sites, it’s a wonder they are allowed to browse the Internet at all.  Unfortunately, it’s futile to try to block all access to the Internet.  The World Wide Web is as common to this generation as libraries once were to ours. The Internet can actually enhance your children’s educational experience and  prohibiting its use may put them at an academic disadvantage. With that in mind, there are many ways to keep your children safe while they explore the wonders of this useful resource. 

1.   Take the mystery out of surfing the net.   Simply put –ask your children to show you the “ins and outs” of surfing the net. You may be surprised by how eager they are to show you just how much they know about computers! This also serves a dual purpose.  It serves as a learning opportunity for you and it’s a great conversation starter that may help open to the door to the next important step.

2.    ASK, ASK, ASK!  Ask your children about chat rooms. Ask about blogs. Ask them to show you the sites that they frequently visit. Most importantly, ask if they have a website on myspace, friendster, or any of the other social networking sites.  If they do, check out their website.  Make sure it does not contain identifiable information such as your child’s name, age, address, city of residence, school name, etc.  On sites such as MySpace, kids can post pictures of themselves, biographies, where they like to hang out, names and photos of their friends, email addresses, cell phone numbers, and much more.  All of this information in the wrong hands could lead to problems!

3.    Establish rules with your children about Internet use.  Talk with your children about what they can and cannot do online. Be reasonable and set reasonable expectations.  Try to understand their needs, interests, and curiosity, but set definite parameters.

4.   Limit the amount of time allowed each day on the Internet.

5.   Discuss Chat Room Rules.  Talk to them about the kind of information they should never release, such as full name, address, phone numbers, email address, school information, sports teams, or any other information that could allows someone track them down.  Teach them that when they’re talking with someone in a chat room or instant message (IM) session, they are interacting with a stranger unless they are positive they really know that person in the “real” world.  Also, it is very important that your child does not provide their account password to anyone, including friends!

6.    Do Not Meet in Person.  It’s dangerous to get together with someone you first “meet” online. Remember, people are not always who they seem to be.   If your child insists on meeting up with someone they met online, insist on being there during the meeting. The meeting should take place in a public area such as a restaurant and at a reasonable hour.  At least you will have some idea as to the actual age, gender, and demeanor of the person your child met online.

7.    Check out blocking, filtering, and ratings applications. There are services that rate web sites for content.  There are also filtering programs and browsers that empower parents to block the types of sites they consider to be inappropriate.  These programs work in different ways. Some block sites known to contain objectionable material. Some prevent users from entering certain types of information such as their name and address. Others keep your children away from chat rooms or restrict their ability to send or read  e-mail.  It’s important to realize that filtering programs cannot protect your child from all online dangers.

8.    Keep the computer in a central location. Put it somewhere that you can monitor their activities (kitchen, living room, family room). Also, keep in mind there are many other locations besides your home that have Internet access.  Most cell phones, PDAs, and local libraries, allow access to the Internet. 

9.   Follow up.  This is where it all comes together.  If you don’t follow up, or check up on your children once in a while, you will never know if they are following your rules.  Surprise them while they are actually online. Check the computer history to see which sites they visited recently.  If they know you will check on them, they may be less likely to risk getting caught on a site where they don’t belong. 

I wish I could say that the above guidelines will absolutely prevent you or your child from becoming a victim.  Unfortunately, there are no rules that will give you this ironclad assurance. Using simple logic and common sense is still your best bet to avoid problems.

For more information about Internet safety, teen safety, identity theft, and other similar topics, call the Community Relations Office at 732/669-3612.

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