Thursday, November 04, 1999

On guard, online


Supervision, filters help parents deflect Internet threats to kids

BY CINDY KRANZ
The Cincinnati Enquirer

weik
Deby Weik uses software filter CyperPatrol to keep her son, Chris, 14, out of objectionable Web sites.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        Deby Weik's computer sits in her family's great room for all the world to see. With four children online, she and her husband can keep a watchful eye as their kids surf the Internet.

        "I don't like secretive behavior, and I want to know what my kids are doing," says Mrs. Weik of Independence. "It's not like I go look over their shoulder, but I'm aware."

        Just to make sure their children aren't viewing objectionable Web sites, the Weiks use an Internet software filter that blocks certain sites from appearing on the screen. With filtering software, parents can choose whether or not to block sites devoted to sex, violence, hate, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, weapons, bombs or any topic they deem unsuitable.

        Internet software filters, along with placing the computer in high traffic areas in the home, are two of the most effective ways parents can keep their children safe on the information highway, experts say.

        As the Internet burgeons, so do parents' concerns about protecting their children from predators, unsavory Web sites and zealous marketing to kids.

        In the last year, there have been at least two high-profile cases in the Tristate of teen girls being lured to meetings with men they met in Internet chat rooms. The Columbine shootings revealed the potential dangers of hate and violence sites. And last month, the federal government took steps to curb marketing surveys of kids online.

        Almost daily, someone, somewhere, has a bad experience with the Internet, says Capt. Pat Olvey, commander of Hamilton County's Regional Electronic Computer Intelligence (RECI) Task Force.

        “The best way for parents to watch over their kids is to have that computer in a family room atmosphere instead of behind the child's closed door,” he says. “I think parents have an obligation to have that in an open area and have an obligation to periodically look at the screen to see what their children are doing.”

The new hangout
        Like shopping malls, the Internet has become a popular hangout for kids. Kids 5-12 make up the fastest growing segment of Internet users, according to Jupiter Communications, a market research firm. They're surfing the net to chat, play games, check out their favorite celebrities and do homework.

        Last year, 8.6 million pre-teens and 8.4 million teens were online. Jupiter Communications projects that by 2002, 21.9 million pre-teens and 16.6 million teens will be online.

        The Weiks bought their first PC in 1993, but they thought long and hard about going online with four children in the house. They have three boys, now ages 22, 16 and 14, and one 5-year-old daughter.

        “At the time, I wasn't as computer literate,” Mrs. Weik says. “I've been learning gradually through the years. I didn't know you could police things.”

        They just signed up for the Internet last November after they purchased a Gateway that came with CyberPatrol, a filtering software.

        “Not only have we been able to block them out of every Web site containing pornography, sex, violence and gore, I have completely put a block on any chat room,” Mrs. Weik says. “I've never heard anything good coming out of chat rooms, so I don't use them.”

        Mrs. Weik works and goes to school full time, so the children's Internet access is limited during the day. The Internet is accessible from 4 p.m. to midnight on weekdays and from 7 a.m. to midnight on weekends. Internet usage is limited to no more than five hours per day.

        “I am also able to run a report once a week that not only tells me where anyone has hit, but any Web site they tried to hit,” she says. “It is very enlightening. With all these controls put on from the beginning, my boys have no idea what kind of junk they could be into because they never have.”

        Her 14-year-old son, Chris Huesing, says CyberPatrol works well because if he even tried to access an off-limits site, his mom would find out.

        He wasn't crazy about having filtering software on the computer. “I thought it was dumb at first,” he says. And, he'd still like to be able to use a chat room.

        Yet, he agrees that Internet safety is an important issue. “It should be taken seriously because there are a lot of stalkers and computer hackers out there,” Chris says.

Technology, good sense
        Eric Rubinoff, technical alliance manager for the Sun-Netscape Alliance, which offers Internet software and services, says the best thing parents can do is use a combination of technology and good parental common sense.

        “Explain to your children the reality of the Internet and how, as wonderful as it is, there are some people who use it to take advantage of young people, expose them to things not desirable and will prey on your naivete,” he says.

        As much as you talk to your children, there are times you can't be there. That's where filtering software comes in handy, he says.

        On his home computer, Mr. Rubinoff uses Net Nanny to protect his two sons, ages 15 and 5. Net Nanny, he says, enables you to regularly update the list of identified questionable sites.

        Parents, he says, need to be aware that new Web sites are added constantly. “You have to import or update your filtering software with the newest list. It's not just installing it once. You need to make sure you update it because sites are being added hourly.”

        The difficulty with some of the software is it's very absolute in what it does, Mr. Rubinoff says. Net Nanny, for example, prevents his sons from entering their last names, protecting them from giving out too much information to someone unscrupulous.

        If Mr. Rubinoff needs to enter his last name on a Web site or view a site that has been blocked, he has to temporarily override the block.

        While some computer experts warn that software filtering programs are not foolproof, others say the content can be locked fairly securely. Whatever the case, parents can still double-check usage.

        “There are ways within the browsers to see what Internet sites that that browser has visited through looking at the history,” Mr. Rubinoff says. “Parents should familiarize themselves with that capability if they have concerns and verify that correct Internet usage is happening.”

        Kids can unwittingly call up an undesirable Web site while searching for a reputable one. Fore example, one can search for the White House Web site at www.whitehouse.gov, but inadvertently find a porn site with a similar address.

        What's more, a search engine may find a site based on what the kids want. The page looks reputable, but may link to an undesirable site.

        “They're basically hijacking home pages,” Mr. Rubinoff says. “As meaningful and reputable as these Web sites are, unfortunately there are enough people out there trying to use the Internet in a bad manner that you need to take advantage of some of these optional tools for protecting ourselves and our kids.”

Dangers abound
        Unsavory Web sites have their own specific dangers, but experts say it's the chat rooms that pose the greatest potential threat to a child.

        “There's no danger like there is for someone to be in a chat room where they can be talked out of the house to meet somebody some place, which we're starting to see,” Capt. Olvey says. “The big danger of chat rooms is you never know who you're talking to. I can talk to you in a chat room situation and tell you I'm a Chippendale dancer and I sing like Perry Como, when in reality, I don't dance and I can't sing.

        “Deceit is very easy to achieve by means of a typewritten message. It's not like a phone call where you can hear inflections in their voice and may be able tell if someone is lying to you. With a phone call, you can get a gut feeling. You can't get that gut feeling in a chat room.”

        How seriously should parents take Internet safety? Just as seriously as they take care about knowing where their children are when they're outside of the house, he says.

        Lawrence Magid, an expert on children and the Internet, says parents must not overreact if their child finds something unsavory on the Internet.

        “If your child tells you about an upsetting person or thing encountered while online, don't blame your child, but help him or her avoid problems in the future,” Mr. Magid writes in the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children's brochure, “Child Safety on the Information Highway.”

        “Remember, how you respond will determine whether they confide in you the next time they encounter a problem and how they learn to deal with problems on their own,” says Mr. Magid, who produces Internet safety Web sites SafeKids.Com and SafeTeens.com.

        Capt. Ovey's advice to parents is to keep up with the times. Parent-teacher organizations should help parents with computer technology, so adults are as savvy about computers as their children, he suggests.

        And remember, like other cultural changes and technological advances, history is merely repeating itself.

        “During Prohibition, how did mom and dad keep their young children out of the speak-easys? They found a way. Each generation, the parents have a new challenge to overcome. (The computer) is this generation's challenge.”

- On guard, online
Filtering software varies - here's 4 of the best
Internet safety resource guides
Kids' rules for online safety
Tips for parents



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