When I took my family to New York last year, we caught a Broadway play and visited museums and walked about town--and we encountered, inevitably, adult theaters and bookstores and other places that were not appropriate for kids to enter. My kids know that such places are off-limits. They also know it's a good idea to beware of high-crime areas in a place like New York. And they know the safe way to behave around strangers and in public: It's all part of being "street smart."
In the same way, kids who hang around the Internet and on-line services need to be "net smart." The rules, in many ways, are similar to those in the real world. Be careful how you behave around strangers and stay away from potentially dangerous areas.
Before getting into the danger zones, let me emphasize that cyberspace, like a great city, is full of wonderful places for children. The vast majority of the sites on the Internet and commercial on-line services are safe. Some are downright wholesome. Like any city, there are museums, universities, libraries, places to shop--even virtual churches, mosques and synagogues.
The good news is that it's extremely rare for a child to get into physical danger in cyberspace. The bad news is that there lots of places on-line that are not appropriate for children, and it's sometimes hard for parents to know how to keep their kids from wandering into inappropriate territory.
Areas of concern include World Wide Web sites, newsgroups and on-line "chat" areas on both the Internet and commercial on-line services. A chat area is like a party line where several people converse in real time by typing and reading comments that are instantly transmitted to all who are tuned in. Because they're live, chat sessions can be particularly troublesome, since there is no way to screen material before it's posted.
With few exceptions, the forums or bulletin boards on the commercial on-line service are appropriate for family viewing. If offensive material is posted, it's usually removed by the staff. That's not necessarily true with the chat sessions. And it definitely isn't true on the Internet which, unlike commercial services, is not maintained by a single company or organization. There are also some sexually explicit private bulletin boards which, in all but a few cases, attempt to keep children out.
The issue of protecting children on-line is different from that of on-line distribution of child pornography, where adults use on-line services to distribute images or descriptions of children engaged in sexual activities. Such material is illegal to produce, distribute or possess on-line or in any other form, regardless of whether it is made available to children.
There are basically three potential dangers to children on-line. First, it's possible for children to find material that is sexually explicit, violent or both. Anyone who knows where to look can find newsgroups and World Wide Web sites that feature sexually explicit descriptions or images. Some, like the sites operated by Playboy and Penthouse, are fairly mild by today's standards. Others contain obscenities that would be offensive to most adults and potentially disturbing to children.
Another danger is that a child might do something that could create a risk, however slight, of physical molestation. There are a few cases in which pedophiles have used bulletin boards and chat sessions to lure a child into face-to-face encounters: A recent FBI sting operation caught several people allegedly using America Online to arrange such meetings.
It's important to remind children to never give out their full name, address, phone number or any other information that could identify them--even if they believe that the person they're in touch with is another child. When you "meet" someone on-line, you don't have the usual clues to determine their age or gender. A person who claims to be a 14-year-old girl could really be a 40-year-old man.
Children should never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they meet on-line without parental approval. If the parents agree to such a meeting, the first one should be in a public place with a parent present.
Finally, there is the issue of harassment and emotional abuse. Most people on-line are actually quite nice, but there are those who use abusive language or are otherwise hostile or belligerent. I've seen a few cases where children have been verbally insulted for asking innocent questions on a computer-related bulletin board.
There are basically two ways to protect your children on-line. The first is parental involvement. Talk to your children, establish rules and make it known that violation of the rules can lead to a suspension of their on-line privileges. Don't use the PC as an electronic baby-sitter. Stay involved with your kids' on-line activities.