In July of 1995, Time magazine shocked parents with a special Cyberporn issue. "There's an awful lot of porn on-line," Time declared. This shriek reverberated across the country. The story reported that on a portion of the Internet known as Usenet, 83.5% of the pictures were pornographic. Time based its story on a study done by a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate, Martin Timm.
The only problem was Time's 83.5 percent figure was completely false. The student study focused not on the Internet, but principally upon pornographic pictures available from X-rated adult bulletin board systems (BBSs). Time and the study's author did concede that pornographic images in fact represent only of 3% of all traffic on Usenet. And the Usenet itself represents only 11.5 % of all Internet traffic. Once we do the math, we get a rather different picture of the cyberporn threat -- only about one-half of 1 percent of all Internet communications is pornographic. Unfortunately the Time article was picked up by ABC's Nightline and other media.
The underlying point is that the Internet is not the root of all evil, it merely adds a new dimension to an existing problem.. This is not to suggest that concern over the proliferation of pornography is entirely misplaced. As parents, we must act as our children's guardians and guidelines need to be established for online activities.
My guidelines for children's online usage are common sense rules, incorporating existing teachings about strangers, telephone etiquette, and television viewing.
1) Know what your kids are doing online. Supervise your children's computer activities, just as you do their television time
2) Never give out personal information online, such as a home phone number, address, last name, name of school, passwords, or credit card info. Your kids would not give their address to a stranger on the phone, nor should they divulge it online.
3) Be cautious of online chat rooms. I allow them only with my supervision. Chat rooms are the cyber equivalent of CB radio. Users can "type" to each other in real-time, and messages are viewed by everyone in the chat room. Private chat rooms are also available. The problem is, as a famous New Yorker cartoon put it, "on the Internet no one knows you're a dog" or a child or an adult masquerading as a child.
4) Teach your children to come to you if anything ever makes them feel uncomfortable, such as inappropriate questions or an invitation to a private chat room. Do not respond to offensive email.
5) Never allow your children to meet "face-to-face" someone they've "met' online.
6) Limit online time as you would television viewing.
7) Use parental control software as appropriate. Parents routinely lock up household chemicals to protect their toddlers and the Internet can also be selectively locked. Today there are several software products to keep kids out of adult Internet sites.
In addition to active parental supervision, there is a new class of software to monitor children's computer activities. Some programs offer a regularly updated list of inappropriate sites and deny access to them; others restrict kids to only acceptable areas. When properly used, parental control software makes it more difficult, but not impossible, for your kids to find inappropriate material on the Web.
$29.95 including a 3-month subscription to the CyberNOT Block List.
$26.95 Windows. MAC not available.
The heart of NetNanny is a parent-editable dictionary of words and phrases you want banned from your computer. You also specify what action (if any) you want NetNanny to take in case of violations. You can choose between shutting down the violating applications (such as Netscape or Word Perfect), or just keeping a computer log. The NetNanny Web site provides a dictionary of explicatives that you can download, or you can create your own list of "No No's".
NetNanny operates from the moment your computer is booted up, not only while your computer is on-line. This means it is compatible with all on-line services (America On Line, CompuServe, Internet, etc.), as well as off-line applications such as word processors and graphics viewers.
$49.95 Windows/ MAC.
$5.95 monthly for subscription of updated sites
SurfWatch is based on the concept of restricting access to offensive sites, but it is designed to work only on the Internet and the World Wide Web. The heart of the program is a database of objectionable (to the SurfWatch staff) cyber-sites that can be updated by monthly subscription.
A voluntary rating system for Internet sites is being being promoted by several consortiums. Similar to movie ratings, these organizations want an industry supported (not government mandated) rating of violence and sexual content. If standardized ratings existed, parents could easily configure their parental-control software to bypass X-rated or unrated sites. For more information, keep your eye on Platform for Internet Content Selection and Safe Surf
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