Keeping children safe while surfing the Net

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 31, 1999

L’Observateur / July 31, 1999

As summer vacation continues for the next few weeks, your children still have more time for hobbies and other interests.

If those interests include exploring the Internet, LSU Agricultural Center family development specialist Dr. Diane Sasser says some common senserules can help you keep your children safe and secure.

“We are responsible for the well-being of our children every day, and this includes taking an interest in their activities, working to keep up with them and contributing to their security by providing them with a safe environment,” Sasser says.

Since today’s environment also includes the Internet, Sasser says it is important for parents to become familiar with the resources and operations available on this World Wide Web, which also is referred to as the Information Superhighway or the Net.

“The Internet may be a new environment for many of us, but the same common sense rules we put in place for our children to follow each day still apply,” Sasser says. “In fact, keeping up with children on the Internetis really not much different from knowing where they go to play, who they see each day or if they look both ways before crossing the street.”The Internet basically is a public gathering place accessed by computers, according to Sasser, who says people go online for many different reasons – to make friends, to talk to interesting people, to entertain themselves, to join in educational experiences, to get information and to conduct business.

“While the options that exist on the Internet are extensive, like any public gathering place, there are basic rules parents and children should discuss and follow,” she says. “Many of the rules we put in place on the Internetare the same as the other common sense do’s and don’ts.”Sasser offers these suggestions about potential uses of the Internet and some tips on making it “family friendly:” The Internet provides families with a new world of opportunities, but its boundaries prohibit face-to-face contact and require an extra level of care as families define their own criteria for meeting and communicating with people online.

The Internet offers families unlimited opportunities to explore and enjoy new worlds of information. How you get involved in your children’sonline experience will depend on the age and maturity of your children and how much autonomy you, as a parent, feel they can handle. The Internetprovides families with the opportunity to meet people, to entertain themselves, to learn, to get information and to shop.

The Internet provides families with the opportunity to meet people from other countries and to communicate with others around the world through e-mail and chat rooms. This is simply another format of communicatingwith pen pals in foreign countries.

There are even “kids-only” chat rooms available. If you, as a parent,want to meet all of your children’s playmates and wouldn’t let your children talk to strangers on the street, then you would want to “meet” their online friends and set rules about talking to strangers online as well.

Programs, games, artwork and books all are available on the Internet for family enjoyment. Children can even participate in innovative andinteractive games with players from the other side of the globe.

If you wouldn’t want your children to give out personal information about your family in a public forum, then you wouldn’t want your children to give out that information online either. You would want to know towhom they are giving information and how it will be used.

Library access is an incredible asset for projects that your children may be researching. If you usually keep an eye on your children’s readingchoices from your local library, you will want to do the same online.

The businesses of the world have become part of a cyber-mall through the Internet. Families can inquire about products as well as makepurchases online. Parents and children can visit the sites of their favoritecompanies to learn about new products and to enjoy the entertainment value these sites provide. But if you wouldn’t allow your children to gointo a store to shop by themselves in an unfamiliar city, then you also wouldn’t want to allow them to make unsupervised purchases online.

Spend time alone together. One of the best ways to ensure a meaningfulonline experience for children is to explore the Internet together to learn what your children do and see online. Spending time online with yourchildren provides an opportunity to talk about what is and what is not appropriate online behavior.

Explore parental control technology options. Parental control softwarecan help parents supervise online activity even if you can’t be with your children. Software packages offer the ability to help keep children fromsending out personal information online, such as their name, address or phone number; allow Internet access only to specific predetermined sites or to sites with specific predetermined characteristics; allow Internet access only at certain times of the day; and provide a report of the places your children visit online. Many companies provide software products thatare inexpensive and easy to install on your computer.

Establish rules for online behavior. Although parents may want to beonline with children as much as possible, that may not always be realistic. That is why it is important for families to develop their own setof clear, understandable rules for the online environment. It is suggestedthat the pledge include such aspects as what a child should do if he or she wants to explore unfamiliar parts of the Internet or other online services; if someone asks for an address, phone number, school name, password or other personal information; if he or she wants to visit a website or play a game that requires completing a registration form; or if he or she wants to buy something from an online store. Other amendments to the pledgecan be made by your family, and you may want to establish such rules as general limits on the amount of time spent on the computer.

As of June 1, 1999, children 12 and under are allowed to use the internet at the St. John Public Library only if accompanied by a parent. Children 12and under are also prohibited from accessing chat rooms on library workstations.

The St. John Parish Library Board instituted the new policy out of concernabout the effects of certain material accessible to children on the internet.

“The board thinks it is the parent’s responsibility to supervise their children’s use of the internet,” says Kay McKey, St. John Parish Libraryassistant director.

McKey says the library’s computer terminals have been in constant use since the beginning of the summer, serving the needs of about 75 people a day at the main branch, which makes it almost impossible for library personnel to monitor children’s activities.

“While the world of computers and the Internet provide our children with additional resources, there are also additional challenges for parents,” Sasser says. “It is important that we guide and protect our children inthis environment as well.”

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