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Clark and Kathy Kidd
Many parents today have found themselves in the awkward position of having children with far better computer skills than they have. As parents, they understand some of the dangers that exist in this new digital world, but are not really certain how to tell if their children are safe online. To complicate matters, a child or teen may run into Internet pornography by accident, or they may be introduced to it by somebody else. They may also be targeted by online pedophiles. In any case, the door is hard to shut once it has been opened. Parents should be ever-vigilant in making sure that pornography hasn't gotten its hooks into any members of the family, or that a child isn't being stalked by an online predator.
There are certain behaviors that indicate a child may not be OK online, or that he or she has attracted the attention of a sex offender. Although none of these warning signs on their own prove that illicit activities are taking place, be suspicious if you start noticing any of the following behaviors:
Management of the Internet can best be approached through understanding, intelligent discussions, reasonable rules, a certain amount of trust, and suitable punishment when it is warranted-in other words, by using the same techniques that successful parents already use to manage most aspects of family life. We strongly encourage families to draw up a contract of behavior regarding Internet use that all family members are expected to abide by; and then have each family member sign that contract as an agreement to live by the rules. Just as with your general family rules, your children need to know that the Internet guidelines are put in place to protect them-and the whole family-from the dangers they may encounter online.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that pornography only traps men or adults. Anyone can become hooked on pornography-from innocent children to corporate executives to religious leaders. Your family is not exempt from a potential pornography addiction, no matter how much you may want to believe that this is the sort of thing that happens to other people. You are the safeguard who is standing between pornography and your family, and your vigilance is essential.
Children should understand and agree that their parents always have the right to access their online accounts and check their activities. Some children will probably not like this, and some parents themselves may not want to do it. After all, it goes against the rules of trust, and it's the electronic equivalent of searching through your child's dresser drawers. But just as Mom and Dad set the rules for using the family car, they should also set the rules for using the family computer. Although most parents will not need to access their children's accounts often, they should still maintain the right to do so when necessary. Many times, just knowing that parents can check all email and computer use will help encourage children to keep the rules.
And a word of caution: If you do catch a family member exploring improper material, don't automatically assume he is doing it on purpose. Many Internet sites, particularly ones that feature pornography, go out of their way to make sure they can easily be found. Family members may stumble upon such material while looking for harmless information.
One way of reinforcing your family rules is the loss of online privileges, or the imposition of stronger parental controls. If you take away privileges, don't rely on the child's word that he won't get online. Instead, use the software to lock the child out of the system. This can be done by changing the password used to access the child's user name, and don't reveal the new password until the probation period is ended. During the probation period, make sure your child is not spending time with friends who are online. You might require the child to be "grounded" at home for the duration of the period.
If this seems harsh, just keep in mind that children who engage in inappropriate online activity put themselves-and their entire family-in grave danger, the most serious being actual physical contact with a predator. Don't put off establishing-and enforcing-a clear set of Internet guidelines. The safety of your family is at stake.
Clark L. and Kathryn H. Kidd are the authors of A Parent's Survival Guide to the Internet. This easy-reading guide can bring parents at every level of computer literacy-from clueless to aficionado-up to speed on how to enjoy the Internet's numerous benefits while avoiding its many dangers.