hirteen-year-old David just wanted to meet some fellow hockey enthusiasts when he visited an Internet chat room for young sports fans. But instead of speculation about the Stanley Cup, the Edinburgh, Ind., seventh-grader found himself in the middle of a discussion peppered with offensive language and negative comments about women.

After that experience, David's parents set a new rule: No more trips to virtual discussions without adult supervision.

More guidelines followed when David's 14-year-old brother John called up sites dispensing revenge tactics, some of which his parents deemed irresponsible and potentially destructive. Now the boys may only visit sites with constructive or neutral content--and they can expect their parents to conduct periodic spot checks while they're on-line.

"This involves a fair amount of trust, obviously," says the boys' mother, Karen Rembold, a developmental psychologist. "They could go to stores and buy magazines with pornography or get them from friends. So we have to trust them to do the right thing, but we have to trust them a little more because access [through the Internet] is easier."

Parental guidance is
the most effective
weapon against the
Internet's dark side.
Calling the shots
Like many parents, Rembold and her husband, James Kozark, have concluded that adult monitoring, rather than electronic parental controls, is the best strategy for safeguarding their techno-savvy teens from cruising objectionable Internet sites.

In fact, at a national summit on children and the Internet held last December in Washington, D.C., participants such as the American Library Association and Vice President Al Gore agreed that parental guidance is the most affective shield against the Net's dark side.

How do you protect your kids from falling prey to a cyber-prowler or entering sites with "adult" content, such as violence, pornography, drugs, hate speech, and racism?

  • Enforce specific guidelines for appropriate Internet activity. Consider having your children sign a contract similar to the one available on-line from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). (Click on education and resources, and then on NCMEC publications.)
  • Place the family computer in the family room or other high-traffic area in your home, for easier monitoring.
  • Ensure that kids understand that not everyone on the Internet is reputable, that a 10-year-old e-mail pal named Jenny actually may be a 30-year-old man, and that under no circumstances should they reveal personal information (full name, age, e-mail and home addresses, physical location) without parental permission.
  • Explain the difference between advertising and information, and establish rules about sending personal information to corporate Web sites in exchange for free gifts.
  • Teach young children how to quickly back out of sites that make them feel uncomfortable, and encourage them to share any upsetting experiences.
  • Accompany kids into chat rooms and get to know their on-line friends.
  • Bookmark child- and family-oriented sites and become familiar with on-line parental controls.

Filters, monitors, and ratings
Nearly five million children ages two to 17 accessed the Internet at home in 1996, according to New York-based Jupiter Communications. That figure is expected to grow to 20 million by 2002. At the same time, it's estimated that the Web is growing by 4,000 new sites a day.

Concern about child safety has engendered an array of filtering, blocking, and monitoring tools from Internet service providers (ISPs), browsers, Web navigation services, and software companies.

Filtering and blocking tools sift Web pages and other Internet sites, blocking children's access to content featuring specific words or phrases. Applications may have extensive lists of "good" and "bad" sites and also enable parents to customize their own restrictions. They may also have monitoring utilities, which maintain logs of kids' on- and off-line activity.

While these tools provide effective security, they're not 100% reliable. Some filters use such broad key words (i.e., "sex" ) that they block a lot of harmless or helpful information, such as references to "Middlesex, N.J." or AIDS education. Another problem arises when sites pass the filtering test, but contain links to other sites that might be objectionable. And critics complain that the content rating systems some of these applications use can be arbitrary and subjective.

      The Internet is
      growing by an
      estimated 4,000 new
      Web sites daily.

If you subscribe to one of the three big ISPs--America Online, Compuserve, or Prodigy--you already have access to some level of filtering. America Online, for example, offers different levels of filtering options for children 12 and younger, young teens, and mature teens. Parents also may customize kids' access to chat rooms, the Web, e-mail, newsgroups, and file downloads.

Your browser also may be equipped with some tools. Microsoft Systems' Internet Explorer provides parental controls, including a search tool that uses a rating system to sift out inappropriate Web pages. Using Netscape Navigator's about:global command, parents can display a list of every site that their computers' accessed during the past day or so. PlanetWeb has integrated a comprehensive filtering tool called PlanetView into its browser.

Probably the best known filtered search engine is Yahooligans! from Yahoo!. Net Shepherd Inc., Calgary, Alberta, in partnership with Digital Equipment Corp.'s AltaVista Software Group, has undertaken the Herculean task of rating every English-language site for its Family Search filtering guide. Net Shepherd, which claims so far to have rated more than a million sites, plans to launch a revised version of its site on Sept. 1. Another Internet guide, Alexa includes site ratings in pop-up tool bars.

If your ISP doesn't support parental controls, or you require more-refined tools, installing a retail software application may do the trick. The most popular applications list from about $30 to $60. These include The Learning Company's Cyber Patrol, Spy Glass Inc.'s SurfWatch, Net Nanny Ltd.'s NetNanny, Solid Oak Software Inc.'s Cybersitter, Pearl Software Inc.'s Cyber Snoop, and Lagoon Data Corp.'s X-Stop.

Most filter applications sift for appropriate content and maintain Internet activity logs. When shopping for an Internet filtering system, ask the following questions:

  • Is the software easy to set up, configure, and use?
  • How often does the vendor update blocked sites--daily, weekly, or less frequently?
  • Are updates free or available only by subscription?
  • Do updates occur automatically or manually?
  • Can you customize restriction profiles?
  • Does the filter use broad key words or is it context-sensitive?
  • How many different Internet areas does the software filter (i.e., World Wide Web, newsgroups, File Transfer Protocol, Gopher, e-mail, chat rooms)?
  • Does the software mask inappropriate Web advertising?
  • Can you control outgoing and incoming e-mail?
  • Does the software include a monitoring utility?

Screen play
Despite a large number of "adult" sites, it's not difficult to find Internet content designed exclusively for kids. The aforementioned Yahooligans! is just one example. Other examples include the kidzine MaMaMedia, Kidscom and Girl Tech.

The American Library Association, Internet Kids and Family Yellow Pages, and World Village are just a few resources providing links to children's sites. Zoos and museums offer virtual tours, games, slide shows, "movies," and more. Government sites, particularly the Library of Congress, provide invaluable information. Even your credit union provides special activities for children.

As with television programs, parents always should preview kid-oriented sites. Carefully scrutinize links--and links within links--for questionable content and pitches to order or download free "gifts" in exchange for personal information.

The Internet offers a cornucopia of information that can enrich a child's world. Being a very democratic arena, it also provides a platform for unsavory characters. With your guidance, and perhaps help from one or more filtering and monitoring utilities, your kids can surf through a safe, fun, and educational environment.

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.