American families face many challenges as the information age continually infuses our society with new computer technology. Because using computers will be a way of life for our children, we need to help them learn how to use them safely.
“Literacy” for the Information Age
In the past, people became literate by reading, listening to words, and speaking with others. Today, information comes through electronic media messages and images. For children to be media literate, today and into next century, they must be able to interpret words, sounds, and images from a variety of electronic media sources, including the Internet. Computers are an important learning tool for children.
Teaching Children to Be Responsible
Parents must teach their children to learn to use new technology responsibly. Give children clear directions for completing a task, as well as time to learn and integrate new skills. Direct children’s work on home computers and allow them to work alone as soon as they have learned to accept responsibility for using the computer and online services.
Plan consciously for a specific time to go online and include everyone in the family. This could work for young children as well as teenagers. For example, two to three times a week could be designated as family “surf the net” time. Decide how much time will be spent and stick to a schedule, assuming that you can access the Net without technical difficulty. Set limits on how much time you will spend online. You might limit preschoolers to less time than older children, and make the limits realistic for your family’s financial situation.
Set an example for your children by your own Internet activity. Family values and guidelines for activities should be established, just as they are for watching television. You may want to look for educational sites, for example. Encourage interactions and family discussion on topics that may be difficult to discuss and let your children hear your views in a nonthreatening way.
Parents should understand the types of screening systems available via computer. Online services may screen or provide users with editorial controls. Computer Bulletin Boards (BBS systems) offer theme-oriented materials on hobbies and interests. Some BBS systems offer “adult” material, but most systems limit access to minors. Because the Internet is not governed by any entity, a variety of information is accessible to users.
Commercial online services make parental controls available to their suscribers; these controls let you limit children’s access to certain Internet sites. Most services allow parents to set up logs to monitor their children’s use of online services. Most commercial companies also have specific areas designated for children.
A content ratings system similar to movie ratings is being developed for online content. The system is known as the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). The major commercial online services have information about parental control features.
Some of the risks involved with children using online services while unsupervised include: possible exposure to “adult” material, which may have violent or sexual content; being lured to meet face-to-face with someone who intends to physically harm them; and being harassed.
Advice for Parents
Educators, security experts, and computer scientists agree that the best protection for children on the Internet is watchful parents.
- Be familiar with the Internet by spending time on the Net with your child. Learn how to access information; have your child teach you if you don’t already know how to log on.
- Become aware of what information your child accesses online, just as you would monitor television, books, or other printed material.
- Talk to your children about their experiences on the Internet, making sure they do not feel uncomfortable about anything or anyone they encounter.
- Some people online may not be who they seem. It would not be difficult for some people to misrepresent themselves.
- Teach your children to ignore threatening or obscene remarks. Encourage them to tell you if they receive such messages. Report suspicious behavior to your online service or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678.
- Caution your child to never release personal information, such as a picture, password, home address, phone number, or school name to strangers online.
- Be sure your child asks your permission before arranging a face-to-face meeting. If you give consent, go along the first time.
- Become familiar with blocking services and software that limit access to children and evaluate the site selection process for such blocking devices.