You may think that you have every angle covered when it comes to home safety -- the alarm system, the dog, and the scattered toys across the floor that would deter even the most persistent burglar. But if you have a computer with Internet access, your family might not be as safe as you think.
While access to the web is a great resource, it does present some very real dangers. We're going to try to address some of those dangers and offer some real world ways to deal with them more effectively.
Part of our challenge is rooted in the reality that many kids know more about computers and the Internet than their parents. This can be a major concern when you consider all of the risks that the Internet can pose to you and your family. Even the most conscientious parents can be in the dark when it comes to the risks associated with their children using the Internet. (For example, a United States Justice Department survey found that 19 percent of young Internet users have received an
unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year. Of those incidents, only one quarter of those affected actually notified their parents.) So let's address two of the most common dangers of the web for our children -- pornography and online predators.
Currently, there are over 100,000 porn sites available, an increase of 300% over the last year. The main reason for the increase is as simple as supply and demand. The number one searched for topic is sex, and 57% of all web site visits are sexual in nature. Everyone knows that sex is big business these days, and it certainly is on the web. Many of these sites go well beyond nudity, and plumb the depths of perversion and debauchery of every kind.
But does that affect our children? Can they really access these sites easily? Hasn't a little "sexual peeking" been part of the early adolescent experience?
Sixty-five percent of fourteen to eighteen year olds have accidentally viewed pornographic material online by initiating searches for topics NOT sexually related in the process of doing research for school. The concern is that pornographers disguise their sites by using names that appeal to young people in an attempt to lure them in. This does take into account the vast number of our children that wander into porn sites out of sense of interest, fascination in the forbidden, or on the dare of a friend. In addition to still images, streaming video and live sex shows can pipe in unbelievable filth in our children's minds. Once a child has viewed pornography online, the images on the hard drive can be erased but the images in their mind cannot. The residue of this filth is very hard to shake and can colour our children's views of sexuality for years to come, as many counsellors will confirm.
The child that is intent on viewing these images is also much more susceptible to sexual predators online. Even more dangerous, the innocent and naïve child in an open Internet chat is susceptible to being victimized. (Over four years ago, we put a stop to our daughter going to a popular children's chat room when it was very clear to our
horror that there were predators leading her into inappropriate discussions and gently probing for personal information. We have had to on occasion, block those we suspected of similar things on Heartlight chat. -- Phil) While there are many good uses for online chat, not all of the people your child may meet in a "chat room" have your child's best interest at heart. Once establishing a relationship through a chat room, these predators can coax personal information from your child as well as email your child pornography whether or not they ask for it. According to the Girl Scout Research Institute, 86 percent of the girls polled said they could chat online without their parents' knowledge. And 54 percent could conduct a cyber relationship.
There have been several high profile cases that have made this horrifying danger a reality. Most online sexual predators conceal their true identity and establish a rapport with children of all ages through the use of chat rooms. This usually progresses from
just chatting to information gathering, gift giving and then eventually a face-to-face meeting. Some predators chat online about how to circumvent inferior filtering software and educating children on how to cover their tracks online. There are others who are intent on supplying pornography via email or soliciting pictures from those they are
My mother used to say, "it's because I won't always be there." And as a parent, I have come to realize the wisdom of that statement and the need for teaching my children about personal safety -- both in the real world and the virtual one. But no matter how careful you may be as a parent, there will always be opportunities for your children to get into trouble while they surf the web in the two areas we have already
discussed: viewing pornography and exposing themselves to predators through chat relationships. The safety of your family has never been more important -- in both the real world and the virtual world. And, being armed with the information and the tools to protect your family is the first step.
There are, however, several things you can do to help protect your family and your children:
Finally, please understand that even though you may be there most of the time and you trust your kids, there are still going to be opportunities for your children to access the Internet without your knowledge or presence. The fundamental safety device for your computer is an Internet filter. While there are parental controls and client based software packages, we prefer a client-server-based Internet filter. (See our comparison page for filtering solutions and feel free to offer your input and evaluation of any that you have used.)
In contrast to the software-based filters that you install on your computer, client-server-based filtering products "clean" the Internet before it enters your home. The disadvantage of a software-based filter is that it can be turned off by the computer savvy child, sometimes aided by a friend at school or by someone they met in a chat room. (You would be amazed at the number of sites that show kids how to disarm the popular filters and parental controls.) Also, software based filters have to be updated regularly or they will not filter the most recent additions to the porn or hate site index. With a client-server-based filter, the updates are continuous and take place without a conscious effort from the computer user. You can be protected without the commonplace hassle regular downloads or without the vulnerability of running yesterday's great filter that is full of holes today. The next time you leave the house, you can feel more secure that your child is armed with the best technology and of course, the best parenting, as she or he faces the opportunities and challenges of the Internet.
Let's do all we can to guide our children and help them develop the tools for making proper decisions about their sexual purity. Let's also be aware that as parents, we have a responsibility to help protect our children from dangerous predators and from content that could forever mar their future. Just as passionately as we try to protect our home from violation by outside thieves and attackers, let's just as passionately protect it from cyber-predators and cyber-dangers. As much as possible, let's make our place Home Safe Home!