Easy ways to keep the Internet safe

You wouldn't allow your young children to watch Sex in the City, would you? Then why give them unimpeded access to the Web, where much more salacious content is just a google away?

Until you're ready to let go and allow your children to use their own common sense when it comes to the dark side of the Net, you have to protect them--and doing so is easy, with just a little thought.

You may be tempted to buy a commercial Internet-filtering product such as Solid Oak Software's US$40 Cybersitter or SurfControl's US$40 CyberPatrol. These programs employ antivirus-like databases of known sites and content to block objectionable Web sites, newsgroups, and other Internet sources. They also log your child's online activities.

Parental-control software makes sense in some households, but I see domestic surveillance as a last resort. Before you institute blanket home censorship and snooping on the family PC, give these less intrusive browse-control tools and techniques a try.

Out in the Open

First, clearly express to your children--in age-appropriate terms--your family's values with regard to sexuality and violence in the media and online. If doing so seems like a tall order, click here to read the Be Web Aware coalition's tips for parents on how to shield kids from Internet pornography. On the left side of the page are links to "Safety Tips by Age," including pointers on topics such as how much your child needs to know and is likely to comprehend. The site also offers information about violent content, hate speech, online predators, and many other Internet dangers.

Next, examine your children's access to the Internet. If they have their own computer with an unfiltered Internet connection that they can use behind their closed bedroom door, you might as well set them free to roam the local video store. I respect my children's privacy, but it's also my job to defend them from online predators and from violent or addictive material, such as some online games. Keeping their computing out in the open on a shared computer makes that job possible. Allowing them to use the PC in complete privacy makes it impossible.

If you're unsure whether your child will be safe using the Internet unsupervised, state explicitly when it's okay for them to surf and when it's not. If you need help enforcing your policy, many firewall products, as well as the parental controls offered by America Online and MSN, allow you to specify the hours when a particular user or PC may go online. Naturally, your child may be more knowledgeable about configuring (or bypassing) such controls than you are, so do your homework and become an expert.

But don't clamp down the connection without explaining your concerns to your children and coming up with a safety plan; otherwise, you'll just shoo them away to look elsewhere for unfettered Internet access.

Block Spam and Pop-Ups

Sexual predators sometimes use e-mail and online chat to entice their victims. Much spam is also X-rated. If they aren't absolutely necessary, avoid creating e-mail and chat accounts for your kids. (Cell phones are safer because, so far, they're relatively porn-free.) If your child needs to use e-mail (because of school, for example), be sure to set up a good spam blocker, such as Firetrust's US$37 MailWasher Pro; click here for the free 30-day trial version. Blocking browser pop-up windows is another way to reduce your children's likelihood of seeing porn. To block all pop-ups in Internet Explorer 6, click Tools, Pop-up Blocker, Turn on Pop-up Blocker. If you use Firefox, choose Tools, Options, select Web Features, check Block Popup Windows, and click OK.

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