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Keeping Kids Safe Online

These days, we're all somewhat wiser about the risks of online chat rooms. My girls are now helping their friends understand what they've learned about how to be more responsible young adults. However sad I am that they needed to have learned this particular lesson, I'm very glad they did.

I'm no expert, but I am a parent of three teenagers who, thankfully, have been safe so far. My reaction to the news about Microsoft jumping into the monitoring space with a free tool to be available this summer is that it sounds great, but I hope parents realize that the use of any monitoring software isn't by itself enough to guarantee kids' safety.I think anyone in the computer industry already knows this and certainly understands the dangers that lurk. But I worry there may be some parents who too readily trust a tool to take the place of their (human) care and concern. Parents must still be parents, and older teens especially must be made aware of their responsibility in this, too. With freedom comes great personal responsibility, both online and offline, and kids need the adults in their lives to both explain and model this.

The general philosophy in our household has been to start out pretty strict and then allow and encourage the kids to earn more privileges, including later bedtimes and more online time, as they get older. Just as it makes no sense to allow a 10-year-old to date, it's just as ridiculous to me not to set online boundaries that are revisited as circumstances warrant. I recall when our son, now in college, turned 13. He was indignant over the fact that he was allowed only the same amount of online time as his "kid" sisters. Now a teenager, he expected to be treated differently than they were--and we heard his concern and allowed him some extra time.

Now that our kids are (just about) all over 16, we pretty much leave them alone--except to still restrict the number of hours the younger two are allowed to be online to begin with.

But holding strong regarding this online stuff hasn't been easy, especially when there are so many kids out there basically running rampant. It has been the subject of many, um, conversations in our house--you know, the ones with very loud voices. Our kids thought us complete ogres when we would only allow them "social" PC time--that is, anything other than homework--for a couple of hours each night. We enforced this, and still do, by password-protecting the PC and hiding the external modem in places they'd never look (like the kitchen), and, of course, through good old-fashioned nagging. And if all else fails, I've been known to pull the DSL line out of the wall. Yes, really.

Here's why: Younger kids just don't understand the stakes here. Nor should they really, and most adults feel they don't want to "rob" any of their kids' childhood by explaining some of the nastiness of life before they really have to. That was my thought anyway, so the alternative is just to say, hey, you can only be online for a certain amount of time, and you can only go to places that Dad or Mom say are OK, and you're going to have to trust us that this is in your best interest. Our guys actually did OK with this--just like we did when our parents restricted our phone or TV time, or where we were allowed to hang out and with whom.

Just when I thought we were all getting the hang of this online stuff, however, came a whole host of other concerns with the advent of MySpace. This is true of any online chat environment, of course, but there are certain characteristics about MySpace that aren't true of other social networking sites popular in our household. Indeed, those features are often the reason for MySpace's popularity with the under-20 set: the ability to post photos and much information about yourself, including your favorite colors and if you're a "chocolate" or "vanilla" person, and whether you like your parents. And sure, you can share blog entries with friends or read theirs, but that's just one of many benefits.

While you have to be a registered MySpace user to check out most of the photos, you don't have to register to see the text info posted on any given user's page. You do need to know the person's "handle" to find the page to begin with, but most kids keep the link to their MySpace page on their IM "away" message and/or IM profile. So if you start at IM, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to get to someone's MySpace page.

The site is generally a one-stop shop for anyone with evil intentions, and it's mostly public. So my family started having "discussions" about MySpace when some info about the kids became too much info about the kids.

We made little if any headway until a couple of things happened. First was that two of our girls' friends were getting into some very dangerous territory, in my opinion, by going to the mall (and elsewhere) to meet up in person with guys they had originally encountered only in rooms or social networking sites. One girl even posted photos of herself in clothes the circa-1980s Madonna would have worn, in an attempt to make herself look older and/or more desirable to "hot" guys.

After my kids told me about these situations, and after much soul-searching, I called both kids' parents and alerted them. I did so after thinking I'd really want someone to tell me if my kids were getting into danger. Looking the other way benefits no one, and if the parents were either already aware or for some reason were fine with what their kids were doing, I would have simply thanked them for their time and moved on. No harm, no foul.

Initially my kids were not too thrilled at the notion of being "tattletales," but I was able to convince them that they may have saved their friends' lives. Just like if their friends were engaging in any other harmful practices, like drugs or cutting themselves or whatever, someone needed to intervene.

The other thing that happened was that around this time, a national TV show aired that talked about online sexual predators. The TV show worked with law enforcement to help set these guys up--so that the creeps would show up at a house expecting a sexual encounter with someone they knew to be underage, only to be met with cameras and cops instead.

We all watched this show together, and my girls were appalled that people actually went to "their" sites with such nefarious intentions. Ultimately, both girls changed their MySpace profiles to contain much less identifying information, like the name of their high school and where they lived.

These days, we're all somewhat wiser about the risks of online chat rooms. My girls are now helping their friends understand what they've learned about how to be more responsible young adults. However sad I am that they needed to have learned this particular lesson, I'm very glad they did.These days, we're all somewhat wiser about the risks of online chat rooms. My girls are now helping their friends understand what they've learned about how to be more responsible young adults. However sad I am that they needed to have learned this particular lesson, I'm very glad they did.

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