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How Can You Keep Your Child Safe Online?

The online world mirrors the real one: it includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. While all parents want to keep their child safe, parents will have different standards for what they allow their child to experience online. This section covers:

  • Benefits, dangers and parenting strategies for guiding a child's use of email, the Web, and chat;

  • Legal and ethical rules of the road; and

  • Guidelines for your child to stay safe online.

Parents in Charge

Certain people can pose a danger to kids online and certain information online is not appropriate for children, or is appropriate only for certain ages. Most parents have strong feelings about what their children should be exposed to, and are concerned about how easy it is to get information online. Parents may worry about materials that are sexually explicit, violent, racially biased, or overly commercial.

The good news is there are several things that parents can do to help make their children's online experiences safer.

  1. Learn About the Internet

    If you are just starting out on the Internet, see what your local library, community center, school or newspaper offers by way of introduction.

  2. Get Involved

    Your involvement in your child's life, including his or her online life, is the best insurance you can have of your child's safety. Use our parenting tips in this section and learn with your children about fun things to do as well as about the dangers online in a way that makes you a partner in the experience, rather than a resented censor.

  3. Stay Informed

    Keep yourself informed about parental control tools and how they can help you keep your child safe online. (See below for an introduction to what currently available tools can and cannot do.)

  4. Become an Advocate for Kids

    If you see material or practices online you do or do not like, contact your Internet Service Provider and the company that created the material. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to make sure that this growing medium develops in positive ways for kids.

Parental Control Tools

These tools use several different strategies to help you control what your child does online. Check out the overview of email, the Web, and chat on these pages for a list of the most common features of parental control tools.

But, remember no parental control tool is 100% reliable. Not only do tools inadvertently allow access to some inappropriate material and block access to some valuable information, but savvy children may be able to get around the controls.

Finding Parental Control Tools

At this time, there are three primary places from which parents can obtain parental control tools:

  1. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP). The best place to start is with the company that provides you with a connection to the Internet, such as America Online or Prodigy. Most offer a range of control features, often for free.

  2. Your Local Computer or Retail Store. Here you can buy "blocking and filtering" software, such as Cyber Patrol and CYBERsitter, that includes features similar to the ones provided by an ISP. You have to set up these products on your own computer.

  3. Your Web Browser. You can also use certain Web browsers, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer, to enforce parental control rating systems.

Keep an eye on other parental control tools, such as "safe areas" for kids, new types of rating systems, and search engines designed to find only information that has been approved for families.

Be Sure to Find Out Whether the Tool:

  • Has the protection features best for your family

  • Can be used on the type of computer you have

  • Requires a subscription fee after you've bought the product

  • Works with commercial service providers, with direct Internet connections, or with both.

Email Safety

Positive Benefits for Your Child

  • Keep in touch with teachers, family, friends

  • Get help with homework

  • Establish mentoring relationships

  • Practice writing

  • Receive online newsletters

  • Make world-wide pen pals

Parenting Tips

  • Share your child's email account and password.

  • Talk with your child about the people he or she is meeting online.

  • Set a rule that your child never arranges an in-person meeting without you present.

  • Complain to the sender of unsolicited email and to your ISP about unwanted email.

Web Safety

Positive Benefits for Your Child

Access rich educational and cultural resources (text, sounds, pictures, and video) otherwise unavailable to most people.

Obtain up-to-the-minute information.

Improve ability to understand and evaluate information.

Stay informed by accessing your community and school Web sites.

Play fun and educational games.

Learn educational skills useful in future jobs.


Easy-to-find sites with sexually explicit images and text.

Easy-to-find sites promoting hatred, bigotry, violence, drugs, cults, and other things not appropriate for children.

Inaccurate, misleading and untrue information.

No restrictions on marketing products such as alcohol and tobacco to children.

Marketing that deceptively collects personal information from kids in order to sell products to them or their parents.

Requests for personal information for contests, surveys, etc., that are used in unauthorized ways.

Easy access to games with excessive violence and gender stereotypes.

Parenting Tips

Keep computer in family area to better monitor your child's activity.

Regularly spend time online with your child to learn about his or her interests and activities.

Teach your child to end any experience online when he or she feels uncomfortable or scared by pressing the back key, logging off, and telling a trusted adult as soon as possible.

Establish an atmosphere of trust and understanding with your child by not blaming him or her for uncomfortable online experiences.

Discuss the difference between advertising and educational or entertaining content and show your child examples of each.

Show your child the difference between sources of information that are credible and those that are not.

Teach your child to never give out personal information unless he or she has your permission and you know how and by whom the information will be used.

Establish strict rules for ordering products (and then monitor credit card bills).

"Talk back" to Internet Service Providers and content creators to let them know what you want and expect from them in keeping kids safe online.

What Parental Control Tools Can Do

Block access to materials (text and pictures) identified as inappropriate for kids.*

Permit access only to materials specifically approved as safe for kids.*

Allow you to specify what types of materials are appropriate for your child.

Help you monitor your child's activity on the Internet by storing names of sites and/or snapshots of material seen by your child on the computer for you to view later.

Allow you to set different restrictions for each family member.

Limit results of an Internet search to content appropriate for kids.

Block advertising that appears at the top of a Web page.

Enforce time limits set by parents.

* Each control tool determines whether materials are "inappropriate" or "safe for kids" differently. Make sure you ask what criteria the tool uses and how the evaluation process works; then check out the tool yourself.

Chat Safety

Positive Benefits for Your Child

  • Develop relationships with children and adults around the world

  • Talk to kids and teens with similar interests and concerns, in rooms specifically for kids that are monitored closely by adults

  • Communicate instantaneously with family, friends, teachers, community leaders, etc.

Parenting Tips

  • Accompany your child in chat rooms until he or she learns your safety rules.

  • Teach your child to never give out personal information such as his or her name or address, school name or address, or anything else that is personally identifying.

  • Explain that people are not always who they say they are.

  • Set a rule that your child never arranges an in-person meeting without you present.

  • Limit your child to specific chat rooms or consider blocking out chat entirely.

Privacy and Commercialism

The Internet was founded as a research and defense tool, and only now is its full commercial potential being explored. Advertisers and marketers recognize that millions of children are spending more time online and represent a major market:

In 1997, children spent $27 billion and influenced an additional $187 billion in other's spending.9

Online protections for children are just being developed in this arena, so parents need to be particularly vigilant and active.

Parents are used to media that have been regulated over time to protect children, like telephones and television. However, many regulations, such as those which restrict alcohol and cigarette advertising to children, do not necessarily apply online.

Moreover, traditional distinctions between advertising and content are blurred in many child-oriented sites-making it harder for children to distinguish commercials from "content." Further, the interactive nature of this medium makes it easier for marketers to collect personal information from children without necessarily revealing how it will be used and without getting permission from parents. In some cases marketers use free merchandise and familiar characters to encourage children to provide personally identifying information.10 According to a report from the Center for Media Education, online advertisers are targeting children as young as four, using marketing and advertising practices that are potentially harmful to children.11

As a parent, you can help protect children from harmful or inappropriate marketing practices by letting companies know what you think of their advertising and marketing practices and by contacting your Congressional representative or the Federal Trade Commission if you experience practices you think are wrong.

The Law Online

Many laws that pertain to information in other forms like books, magazines and television may apply in cyberspace, but have not yet been tested. Although the law is changing and lawmakers are struggling to find ways to regulate this challenging new medium, some rules do apply. In some cases, you or your child could inadvertently run into trouble with the law, including prosecution, prison, and fines for breaking the law. Here are some basic guidelines about frequently asked legal questions. Refer to the Resources section for updated and more extensive information.


Copying photographs, music, stories, films, and other artistic works is not allowed online without obtaining the proper permission from the owner of the copyright. Typing a story from a magazine and distributing it or scanning a photograph for posting is illegal unless you obtain permission from the original publisher. However, many photographs and graphics have been approved for public use (they are considered "public domain"). And, in cases where permission is needed, it is often made easier online by an email link to request permission.

Copying or Distributing Software

Virtually all software is copyrighted. Copying and distributing purchased software is almost always illegal. However, there are software programs called "freeware" or "shareware" that can be used for free, for a minimal fee, or only under specific conditions. Regardless of what the software is called, you should read the conditions under which you can upload or download it legally.


Email is generally afforded privacy rights if it is sent between individuals. Information or messages posted to a public location are not considered private. Children should be aware that no legitimate service provider will ever request information about them. Some Web sites, however, will request your address or phone number for marketing purposes or to add you to a mailing list. This is not illegal, but there is no obligation for your child to give the information.


It is generally considered illegal to access or attempt to access a private information system, such as a company’s internal network. This is called hacking. Children will explore the Internet—that is what it is there for. They should be warned that if they ever encounter a private system that asks them for a user ID (or userid) and password, they should leave the site immediately.


This is a very complicated area. However, parents should remember that materials they might consider obscene or objectionable for their children to see may be protected by the First Amendment and not considered legally obscene. Under current law, anything that is legal in print is generally also legal on the Internet. However, commercial online services have the right to restrict access to obscene or indecent materials on their systems. One clear area is child pornography; the production, sale, or possession of child pornography in any medium violates federal law.

Who to Call if You Have a Problem With Behavior Online

Most commercial online services have strict terms of service that help protect you and your child in the event you encounter offensive behavior. If you or your child are the victim of harassment or other trouble online, contact your commercial or Internet Service Provider immediately. Offenders can have their accounts terminated, and service providers usually will cooperate with authorities when there is the possibility that a crime has been committed.

If the situation involves incidences of online enticement of children for sex acts, child pornography or child prostitution, you can report the incident to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's "CyberTipline" by calling toll free, (800) 843-5678, or going to their Web site, The CyberTipline forwards all reports to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

A Young Person's Ground Rules for Online Use

Just like teaching a young person to drive a car, and balancing privilege with responsibility, you need to provide your child with some tools to help him or her stay safe online. One of these can be a set of Ground Rules that outlines the rules of safety that you and your child agree on.

Staying Safe:
Ground Rules for a Young Person's Online Usage

  1. ALWAYS tell a parent or another adult immediately if something seems scary or threatening.

  2. NEVER give out a full name, real address, telephone number, school name or location, schedule, password, or other identifying information when online. Check with an adult for any exceptions.

  3. NEVER have a face-to-face meeting with someone encountered online. In rare cases, parents may decide it's OK. But if one meets a cyberpal, it will be in a public place and with a parent or guardian present.

  4. NEVER respond online to messages that use bad words or words that are scary, threatening, or just feel weird. If that kind of message is received, print it out and tell an adult immediately. The adult can then contact the online service or appropriate agency. If uncomfortable in a live chat room, use the "ignore" button.

  5. NEVER go into a new online area that will cost additional money without first asking permission from a parent or teacher.

  6. NEVER send a picture over the Internet or via regular mail to anyone without a parent's permission.

  7. Do NOT give out a credit card number online without a parent present.

Right and Wrong: Ethics Online

In addition to the law, parents ought to know about the special ethical issues that come up with this new technology. The interactive, seemingly anonymous, nature of the online world raises old ethical questions in new ways, especially for children.

Because the online world can feel "pretend" to a child, it is very important that a parent articulate and reinforce the importance of basic values (ethics) such as truthfulness, responsibility, and respect. Children need a careful explanation of what is acceptable behavior and why, and they need to know what exceptions, if any, are permissible.

Parents can use the "new" situations that come up online to reinforce basic standards of conduct and talk about values. For example:

Is it all right to download software programs that are available at some online sites?

Only when the source of the information gives you explicit permission to do so. Stealing information is like stealing other things. It's wrong and illegal.

Can I take information off the Internet and pretend that I created it?

No. It is both wrong and illegal to take information that you did not create and represent that it is yours. Many words and images are protected by laws, so pay careful attention to which ones are. It is important to report who or what the original source is.

Is it all right to pretend to be somebody else when you're online? (Can a boy pretend to be a girl? Can children pretend to be older than they are?)

The online world allows you to create a special name that you can use, and helps children go online with a degree of anonymity. However, pretending to be something you are not in a way that deliberately misleads others who are presuming you are truthful is not all right.

It is important for you to talk with your children when these kinds of questions come up. They provide one of your best teaching tools. Since you're learning too, take the time to really discuss the tough questions and help your child to be a good citizen in cyberspace.

Etiquette Online: "Netiquette"

"Internet etiquette," called "netiquette," is also important for children and their parents to understand. There are widely accepted rules of behavior to follow when you're online, including (but not limited to):

  • Don't TYPE ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING. If you need to emphasize a word, use asterisks, like *this.*

  • Be polite. When you enter a chat room, wait awhile to find out what people are talking about before you participate. Be patient with newcomers.

  • Be careful not to use rude or bad language online. Many providers will terminate your account.

Safe Traveling on the Information Superhighway: A Parents' Checklist

  • Tap your child's natural sense of wonder and discovery and temper it with your experience and counsel.

  • Let your child take the lead, but stay with him or her until you've decided the activity is appropriate.

  • Spend as much "cybertime" with your child as you can.

  • Provide your child with clear, simple instructions about how to avoid danger and what to do if something happens.

  • Set limits appropriate to your child's age.

  • Talk to your child often about his or her computer/online life.

  • Monitor, Monitor, Monitor (time, phone bills, chat groups, and onscreen materials).

  • Use online experiences as another way to teach responsibility, good conduct, and values.

Sample online symbols called Emoticons:

:-) = I'm happy

:-( = I'm sad

(:-& = I'm angry

:-O = I'm shouting


BTW = By the way

LOL = Laughing out loud.

OTOH = On the other hand

IMHO = In my humble opinion.

There are hundreds of these symbols to use while online. You will see them as you spend time emailing, and most Internet guides will have a list of them (see Resources).

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