CHILDREN'S INTERNET SAFETY NET: As More Youngsters Reap Benefits Offered on the World Wide Web, Parents Must Learn to Protect Them from an Array of Unsuitable Sites

Article excerpt

Hope Shirazi and her 11-year-old daughter, Samiram went on the Internet to look up different types of rabbits.

"We did a search for bunny and a bunch of links came up. When we clicked on a link, we got the Playboy Web site," the Fairfax County mother says. "I never would have dreamed that would have come up. I am now very careful about using the Internet."

As more children use the Internet, parents have to learn to stay one step ahead so they can protect their loved ones from unsuitable material and invasions of privacy while letting them reap the benefits of cyber-information. After all is said and done, it is every parent's responsibility to enforce computer safety rules, Internet experts say, because the threat is real.

A recent study - "Online Victims: A Report on the Nation's Youth" - confirms that one in four youngsters encountered unwanted pornography on the Internet and one in five was exposed to unwanted sexual solicitations in the past year. The study found that "sexual solicitations were more likely to come from another youth."

The study was conducted at the direction of Congress by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire on behalf of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.missingkids.com).

The research was based on 30-minute interviews with a random sampling of 1,500 children nationwide between the ages of 10 and 17 who used the Internet at least once a month. Separate interviews with their caregivers also were part of the study.

TRICKING YOUNGSTERS Children can be led to pornography as they click on sites masquerading as providers of information on Barbie, Pooh, ESPN and even the White House. Herein lies one of the major pitfalls of the Internet: Children are vulnerable to exploitation by predators and marketers.

Even when parents have set rules, predators can trick children by asking innocent-sounding questions. Dr. Lynda Tenhundfeld, a child psychiatrist on the faculty of Georgetown University, recalls an incident with her son:

"My 10-year-old son was playing chess on the computer, and the person with whom he was playing chess asked him his name, age, where he lived and where he went to school. He started giving his name and age and then came to me. He typed back, `I am not allowed to tell you that.' The person asked why? My son said, `My mom told me not to.' The person typed back, `Your Mom's a smart woman' and went off line."

This is a typical example of what children can encounter when on line, Internet experts say.

"Parents are aware about telling kids not to go to sites where you give personal information . . . but it is when they least expect it" that children can get in trouble, Dr. Tenhundfeld says.

ESTABLISH RULES

That is why it is important for parents to establish rules and be aware of what children are doing on line. Dr. Tenhundfeld recommends these rules for parents:

* Explore the computer together with your children.

* Put the computer in a high-traffic area.

* Explain how pedophiles can entice children through the Internet.

* Restrict children from chat rooms and bulletin boards.

* Use some form of screening software or use a computer that has screening software built into it.

"The best thing parents can do is establish rules and talk to your children," Dr. Tenhundfeld says. Although screening software can help, she says, the downside is that it also can block out historical sites. "There are trade-offs, and you have to decide how to handle those trade-offs," she says.

Dr. Tenhundfeld emphasizes: "The critical issues are the communications and explaining the concerns and the risks and establishing guidelines that everybody agrees to follow in the home. The reality is that kids don't raise themselves, and despite how busy we are, the first priority has to be parenting. …