Safeguarding Children Online

By Cynthia Wallace
Illustration by Joel Snyder

While it's impossible to oversee everything children experience on the worldwide Web, parents can take precautions to make a child's trip on the Internet as safe as possible.

Both of Viki Papazian's children regularly go online, and she believes the risks the Internet poses are well worth its benefits. "The things that are available for them in a positive way are so numerous and mind-blowing that, taken in total, the computer is a fabulous blessing," she says. One of the benefits is that Papazian's 15-year-old son, Sam, a gifted musician, frequently visits a Web site where he can compose music and then listen to a performance of his new song.

But still, this Bergen County, N.J., mom worries that, while on the Internet, her children will be "exposed to things before they're ready." In fact, that's precisely what happened when her 7-year-old daughter, Claire, while on a designated children's Web site, was confronted by a pop-up photo of a celebrity in the nude.

An astonishing one in four children using the Internet has an unwanted exposure to pictures of naked people or people having sex, according to a national survey by the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The study, based on interviews with 1,501 youths, also reports that one in five youngsters has been approached for sex while online.

The Internet is a lot like the world itself. There are exciting new places to go and beautiful experiences to be had, but there's a risk of getting hurt, too. Because the Internet gives people who threaten children a degree of anonymity, it's especially important for parents or significant adults to be present in their child's Internet life. Consider taking these steps to reduce the chance of an unpleasant or harmful incident online:

Learn about the Internet.
Know how to use the computer and navigate the Internet. Local libraries and colleges offer courses, and some computer retailers do, too.

Once a parent is comfortable on the Internet, there's a lot to learn from Web sites dedicated to protecting children online, such as, a Web site with information for family Internet safety;, the Web site maintained by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; and, the FBI's online booklet for parents.

Another good source for learning about the Internet is your child. Ask about his or her favorite Web sites, and you'll likely learn something new about the Internet. You'll also open a line of communication with your child that's key to keeping his or her Internet experience a safe one.

Place the computer in a common room.
With the computer in a family room, den, or kitchen, a parent can keep an eye on what's transpiring while the child is online. This is crucial, says Lee Navlen of Maplewood, N.J., when his 6-year-old son Elijah is surfing the Internet. "We don't have the computer in his bedroom with the door shut. The computer is downstairs in the living room. We come by every five to 10 minutes and make sure everything's all right," Navlen says.

Elijah only surfs Web sites approved by his dad, but Navlen is still apprehensive about the links these Web sites offer. "Elijah will start moving to games, then videos. Then maybe he'll go to the online store, which could link him to a totally different Web site. And that Web site could send him spiraling out of control. You have to be careful."

Use Internet filters or blocks.
A parent can exert some control over a child's Internet experience by using filters or blocks. These tools are available from several sources.

Your Web browser may offer a safeguard at no charge. For example, the popular Internet Explorer features Content Advisor, which limits whoever is using the computer to a list of Web sites approved by a parent or guardian. A filter or block may also be available at no additional cost from the company that connects you to the Internet, known as your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Many families get their service from AOL and use its Parental Controls. These options allow the parent to restrict their computer to age-appropriate Internet sites selected by AOL, when their child is signed on. Another way to protect your child online is to purchase blocking and filtering software for your computer.

Establish Internet rules for your child.
These fundamental guidelines are critical to a child's Internet safety:

  • If a child joins the cybertalk in a chat room, he or she should never meet in person with anyone first encountered online without a parent's permission.
  • A child should never give out personal information, such as a telephone number or address, on the Internet without a parent's permission.
  • If a child comes across any information on the Internet that makes him or her feel uncomfortable or upset, he or she should tell a parent.

These rules are so important, they should be posted near the computer as a reminder to the child, and every youngster should know how to leave a Web site, turn off the monitor, and shut down the computer.

Talk to your child.
The most effective deterrent to a harmful incident on the Internet is a child feeling that he or she can go to a parent when something happens online that's upsetting or that just seems a little strange.

Sociologist David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, says it's virtually impossible to protect children 100 percent from Internet threats. "You can use the filter and blocking software, but given the multiple access points, it's very hard to maintain an absolute cordon around the child."

But when parents spend time with their children and have an ongoing dialogue about the Internet and their kids' interests and activities, a child is more likely to talk to that parent when something unpleasant happens online.

For this, there's just no substitute, because as Dr. Finkelhor points out, "A good relationship between the parent and child is the best inoculation against bad things happening on the Internet."

Cynthia Wallace lives in New York State. She also wrote the Family Talk column "Helping Children Stay Fit and Healthy" in the October 2004 issue.

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