As the parent of a pre-teen who has maintained a somewhat visible presence on the Web, I'm often asked my views about how children should be allowed to participate in the online community.
I view the Internet as a family activity - not a children's activity. There are an untold number of places for children to visit and have fun on the net - particularly on the web - however, parents should sit down and take the journey with their children. When your child goes online, they are effectively leaving the protective confines of your home. Just as you would not let your child explore or wander aimlessly through a major city without adult supervision, they should not be left to their own when online. For almost a year now, my daughter and I have visited hundreds of new pages, "met" scores of people, and have had hours upon hours of fun together in the process.
Despite the sensationalism in the media about the dangers lurking on the Internet, the net can be a safe place for children. Yes, there are areas which contain material inappropriate for children, but regardless of what the media would have you believe, those sites are a tiny minority, and for the most part you need to seek them out if you want to find them. And while I'm sure there may be some people who attempt to use the net to take advantage of children, in all the hundreds of email letters Rachel has received as a result of her page we have had only one mildly uncomfortable experience. By educating your child, participating with them, and arming them with a set of guidelines they can follow for their online activities you can enable them to have a safe and enjoyable online experience.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children distributes a pamphlet entitled Child Safety on the Information Highway (written by Larry Magid) which can help parents understand some of the potential pitfalls for children in the online world and presents some practical guidelines that every family should adopt. This includes My Rules For Online Safety which every child should be familiar with. Printed copies of this brochure are available by calling the NCMEC at 1-800-THELOST.
The NCMEC guidelines are just that - guidelines. Parents need to decide for themselves what their level of comfort is and how they will guide their children through the online experience. I tend to take a more conservative (often called "paranoid") approach, and do not allow Rachel to give out the name of her school, the specific town we live in or post her picture on her web page or send it in email to new penpals. I also screen all of Rachel's incoming email, except mail from those penpals who I feel comfortable about after they've been corresponding with her for several months. This is where my personal sense of security leads me. Other parents are comfortable with a less restrictive approach. The key is to know what your children are doing so that you can make informed and intelligent decisions regarding the guidelines you set for your family.
Finally, don't be afraid to make the leap from a surfer to a more active participant. With the proliferation of freeware and shareware home page creation utilities its possible for just about anyone to help their children create a personal page and carve out their own place in cyberspace. Working with your children on such a project can be very rewarding for the entire family as well as empowering for the children when they realize that what they create and what they say can and will be viewed by people from all over the world.
Nov. 15, 1995
Copyright © 1995 KathyWilliams