Heather Cartwright, an Idaho mother, is committed to making sure her three boys surf the Web safely. She is so vigilant that she bought a $1,500 Compaq laptop with a wireless Internet connection for them to use in her presence.
“We bought the laptop in order to do this,” Cartwright says. “They do not have free access on the Net, even the older one. I have to be here” for them to log on.
Her boys are specifically forbidden to take the computer into their bedrooms.
Cartwright is not alone in worrying about her kids’ use of the Internet. Tech-savvy children and teens increasingly are leaving their parents in the dark about their computer use and Web surfing.
“Sixty-four percent of teens surveyed think they’re doing something (online) their parents don’t know about,” says Jim Schmidt, a Qwest regional president. Qwest recently introduced an online safety guide, www.incredible internet.com, which joins a host of other tools aimed at helping supervise computer use.
Parents short on time and computer expertise need help keeping abreast of their kids’ computer use, according to computer experts. Children in middle and high school present a particular problem because they visit chat rooms, instant message and blog - online activities that can be difficult to track.
The stakes can be high because teens in chat rooms often interact with adults. A survey by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reports that only 25 percent of young people who receive online sexual solicitations tell their parents about it.
Short of pulling the plug on computer use, parents should talk with their kids about protecting their identities online and avoiding potentially risky behaviors such as swapping copyrighted music files.
“A warm and communicative parent-child relationship is the most important nontechnical means that parents can use to deal with the challenges of the sexualized media environment, including file-sharing,” says Patricia M. Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Web site www.netsmartkidz.org, sponsored by several nonprofit agencies, offers detailed steps for monitoring a child’s computer use.
Here are some NetSmartKidz suggestions.
“Explain the benefits and the dangers of the Web in non-threatening ways. For instance, play a game where a group of children sit in a circle and talk. Then have all the children rotate 180-degrees and face away from the group. Can they tell who has come or gone from their circle? Draw a parallel from this to chat rooms and message boards.
“Set time limits and etiquette guidelines, and determine safe physical parameters such as screen height.
For middle-school students
Focus on interactive computer use. This is the age group where instant messaging and chat room use typically begins, so exercise controls, such as:
“No downloads from strangers. The files may have offensive content, spam or junk e-mail and can harbor viruses that will harm the computer or files stored there.
“No responses to offensive messages of any kind. Hurtful messages, known as cyberbullying, can spread instantly with one mouse click. A rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t repeat the comment to the person, then don’t send it into cyberspace. The anonymity of screen names doesn’t eliminate responsibility for hateful talk.
“No unsupervised meetings with people you know only via the Internet. Chat rooms are notorious for “lurkers” who may or may not be known to those online and who may have misrepresented themselves. A young teen shouldn’t attempt to sort out friend from foe without adult help.
“Respect copyrights online. Ignoring them robs musicians, authors and other people of their earnings. Importing text passages into schoolwork without attribution is cheating, not “research.”
“Parents should insist that teens not give out personal information, including name or address. Even subtle hints about identity, such as the name of a high school mascot, can make it easy for someone to find a teen. Do not send photos to strangers or post them on publicly accessible Web sites.
“Limit time online, especially at night. Research shows that sexual predators prowl the Net at night, seeking contact with young people.
“Parents should scan stored files and disks for inappropriate material — such as pornography — on a regular basis.
“Teens who quickly switch off the computer or kill the screen when parents approach may be trying to hide inappropriate material from parents. Parents who back-click to check the screen or scan the stored log of Web sites on a search engine can see where the teen has been.
“Maintain access to the teen’s e-mail account and randomly check it periodically. You wouldn’t allow your teen to receive volumes of U.S. mail from strangers. The same rules apply online despite the implied privacy of passwords, according to experts.