For some children the Internet is a valuable tool to help with homework, for others its entertainment and, unfortunately, for some it’s also the babysitter. As a parent, what do you need to know?

When it comes to email, instant messengers, and chatrooms, the technology varies, but the safety issues are much the same: Do you, or your children, actually know who they are communicating with? Talking to friends from school, who they already know in person, is generally safe. However, the other ‘twelve-year-old’ that your child ‘meets’ in an online chat room may in fact be someone playing a practical joke or a pedophile intent on luring children.

Some online games are great for kids, but others aren’t. Parents need to take the time to understand what the game is about, how it is played, who the other players are, and how these other players interact with their children.

Downloading music and videos presents two problems. First — although not the issue that strikes fear into most parent’s hearts — a lot of the music floating around the Internet is there illegally through copyright violations. Second, most of these files are traded using so-called ‘peer-to-peer’ software. These packages have been known to contain viruses, trojans, and other malware. And that’s a problem.

People who wouldn’t even consider permitting their child to play with the contents of their filing cabinet do precisely that electronically. Allowing your child to use the same computer that you use for work or to manage your personal finances is just asking for trouble. If you think that you’re saving money by not buying a family computer, consider this: If your child accidentally deletes your accounting files or other important business information, it could easily cost you upwards of two thousand dollars to have your data recovered, if it is even possible.

Then there’s the Web. Is it an amazing source of educational information on just about every topic you can imagine, or is it a cesspool of ignorance, hatred, obscenity, and misinformation? The answer, of course, is ‘yes’. Compared to print media, publishing on the Web is dirt cheap. Just about anyone can set up their own Web site and publish their own version of reality. For parents and educators, this is both a curse and an opportunity. On one hand, we need to exercise constant vigilance to ensure that our children are getting credible and correct information. On the other hand, it’s also an opportunity to help children understand that, just because it’s been written, doesn’t mean it’s true. These lessons apply equally to television, radio, books, magazines and newspapers.

So what can parents do? First and foremost, supervise your children. Explore the Internet with them. No piece of hardware or software takes the place of a parent sitting beside their child, using the Internet together. Second, consider content filtering software like NetNanny or CyberPatrol. While it’s true that these applications won’t catch everything that your child shouldn’t see, they certainly help. Third, set limits and enforce rules. Whether you should do that with a signed agreement, a written set of rules or verbally depends on your child and parenting style. However, as a parent, it’s your child and your responsibility.

Next Monday, I’ll post my Internet Safety Tips for parents.

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