Raising Kids Online

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DANIEL OKRENTOn the morning of Tuesday, April 20, as the sun rose over Littleton, Colo., more than 14 million American teenagers punched off their alarm clocks, scarfed their breakfasts, brushed their teeth, rushed off to school...and did not kill their classmates. On that day, like other days, 40% of those teenagers--a number that has doubled in the past two years alone--logged on to the Internet. The vast majority did not encounter recipes for pipe bombs or deranged rants about white supremacy. Most were getting sports scores, downloading the most recent Britney Spears cut, chatting with friends. Some were even doing their homework, tapping into colorful libraries of information on the rain forests, data about particle physics, essays on Hamlet.

These are things, true things all, that we try to impress on our children, and ourselves, as we struggle to come to terms with the slaughter in Colorado and the vivid gash it has left in our psyche. We know that the Internet couldn't possibly be the source of the demons that drove the two killers. We want our kids to use the Net; we know that this technological wonder, every bit as revolutionary as the light bulb or the telephone, is going to shape all our lives in the century ahead.

And yet we worry, because we are parents and because we are citizens. Since Littleton, we worry not so much about our kids' or their classmates' being turned into mass murderers as about something more persistently troubling: that even if our kids aren't playing blood-soaked computer games or plotting violence in the dark crannies of an online chat room, they are plunging into a whole world of influences and values and enticements that is, most of the time, hidden from our view.

At any moment, those same kids exploring jungle fauna or listening to ...Baby One More Time are just a few keystrokes away from Pandora's hard drive--from the appalling filth, unspeakable hatred and frightening prescriptions for homicidal mayhem that the Littleton massacre evoked. If you listened to the conversations at PTA meetings and around Little League diamonds last week, it was as if we'd already forgotten that the Internet brings us vital medical information, cross-cultural dialogue, vast stores of learning and beauty and virtue. Yet what comfort is that to a parent who came across a website last week in which the index included the following entries: Counterfeit Money, Hot-Wiring Cars, Breaking into Houses, Thermite Bombs, Tennis Ball Bomb? Such is the power of Web technology that the simple act of listing the phrases here will make it possible for anyone to type these words into a search engine and immediately locate the site that houses them.

Read this page, then burn it.

Would that it were so easy. The Internet is as persistent as it is potent, an indelible and uncontainable presence in the culture. In fact, the Internet isn't separate from the culture at all; it is the culture. All the trash, flotsam and spillage of our society gets its moment there, where the tiniest obsession has its spot on the shelf, right next to Bach and charity and sunsets. The Internet lets a million flowers bloom, and a million weeds.

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One might wander through the rank reaches of this garden for a reason: a teacher or a parent who feels the need to know how bad it can be out there. Or maybe a racist searching for kindred spirits, or someone lusting for images of brutality or sex. Often, though, you wander because you're 13.

Where an earlier generation of children sneaked hygiene texts off library shelves to giggle over drawings of the human reproductive system, our kids can now cruise through unspeakable swamps. But ask Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist based in Boston, if the kids he sees think of themselves as imperiled. Because there's a lot of omnipotent thinking in adolescents, he says, and because the dangers are somewhat more abstract than climbing trees, I don't feel they perceive the dangers in anything like the way adults do.

And it's not as if governmental action can really make any difference. The Internet is too diffuse, too international, too much the cat that long ago escaped the bag. Besides, as Brenda Laurel, a Silicon Valley veteran and mother of three girls, says, Resisting open access to the Internet isn't going to be an effective strategy. It just makes it forbidden fruit.

If there is a war to be fought, the critical beachhead is in the home. For the wonder and the horror of the Web is not that it takes you out into the world; on the contrary, it brings the world--in all its glorious, anarchic, beautiful, hateful variety--into your home. We'd all prefer that the porn, the neo-Nazis, the violent misogynists and all the other floating trash of a cacophonous culture not wash up into our living rooms. But because they do, we are at least able to know the enemy. We can devise strategies to steer our children away from what's worst on the Net, and toward what is best, even as they grow up much, much too fast.

I think I first felt the parental quiver of fear when I had my initial encounter with a chat room--that invisible meeting spot where the impressionable encounter the unknowable. Web fans say that the Internet, and chats in particular, force interaction, engagement, connection. The favored term for all the Web's weightless, disembodied conversation is community. But in fact, the Web provides only a shadow of community; the interaction with another human being that is held out as the great virtue of Web community is actually interaction with the facsimile of a human being.

I remember passing through the study in our house when my 13-year-old daughter was engaged in a chat with someone who said she was a 15-year-old Californian named Cheryl. It occurred to me--and I suggested to my daughter--that her chatmate, with whom she was sharing the sort of intimacies a 13-year-old will indulge in, could just as likely be a 53-year-old backwoods hermit named Earl. It was a nauseating thought to both of us.

And it was frightening evidence of how, as the medium has matured, its architects' noble commitment to the user's privacy was becoming inverted. What was once a protective shield has now morphed into an obscuring cloak of anonymity. Inventive screen names and coy e-mail addresses have replaced those conventional signs of identity: a name, a face. Under the banner of privacy, Internet anonymity has become the ultimate plain brown wrapper. Some parents who decline to monitor their kids' online chatting liken it to eavesdropping on their phone calls, which they say they would never do. But there's a difference: when your child's on the phone, she knows who's on the other end of the line.

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Privacy can be as dicey an issue within the household as it is out on the Web itself. There are thousands of families in which reading the kids' e-mail, monitoring their chats and tracking their Web travels is a solemn parental obligation. I have every right to read their e-mail, says Bruce Cohen, a Reno, Nev., father of two. Legally, I'm responsible for them until they're 18. Yet many others believe that invading an e-mail file is no different from opening a pen-and-paper diary that your daughter keeps under lock and key in a dresser drawer. A lot of parents--not to mention kids--find that a breach of parent-child trust.

But even if e-mail is considered inviolate, there are tactics by which the alert parent can control it. America Online, the Internet service provider used by nearly 17 million households, allows parents to limit incoming e-mail to a finite list of correspondents. In any e-mail program, a scan of the senders' addresses can give you a good idea of the nature of your kid's correspondents. The proliferation of mailing lists being such a Web commonplace, what's coming in can sometimes tell you what's been going out: even unsolicited e-mail--from, say, a Ku Klux Klan site--can be a clue that someone's been surfing some pretty scary pages.

In fact, this sort of Web transparency can actually be a boon to worried parents. If your teenager is going places in the material world and doing things that you wouldn't approve of, you may never know it. If he's connecting with the world's ugliness on the Web, you may have a chance to track it down. Some parents make a regular practice of typing their kids' names and nicknames into a search engine, which gives the parents a shot at discovering what the kids are saying on their own websites or on message boards and what others are saying about them.

Everyone agrees that the most effective way to monitor kids' online activity is...to monitor it. Literally. To stand beside the computer from time to time when your son is at the keyboard, watching his every mouse click, mindful, of course, that when he starts typing numerals--1,2,3,4--he could be using the chat signal that says parental unit nearby. If the count reaches five, he's telling his chat partners there's a parent reading the screen.

Every parent should also take advantage of the wonderful excuse the Web has given us to keep credit cards from our teenage kids. Entry past the first or second level to most porn sites--and to other beyond-the-pale operations of hustling Web entrepreneurs--is governed by the ability to key in a valid card number.

But beyond random shoulder surfing and convenient-credit-card denial, we parents have a more potent range of options than we may be aware of. A lot of parents might be somewhat computerphobic, says Ed Donnerstein, co-director of the Center for Communication and Social Policy at the University of California at Santa Barbara, explaining why we seem so undone by the perceived threats of the Web. But it doesn't take a degree in electrical engineering to know, for instance, that your kids should be admonished never to reveal personal information to anyone online without your permission--the digital equivalent of not taking candy from strangers. Or that something as simple as the computer's placement in the home can be an effective way to keep an eye on where your kids are going. One of my colleagues has put his family's computer on a balcony atop the stairs. Whenever the kids are surfing, Dad can see where they're going from his reading chair, and Mom can check in by leaning out the door of the upstairs study, where her computer lives. And the kids can see them.

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As kids get older and are likely to demand a little more privacy, some basic technological know-how comes into play. Surprisingly few parents realize how easy it is to find out where their kids have been surfing or to make effective use of simple software that would block access to taboo sites. Dale Berger-Daar, a Chicago early-childhood professional, says she can't check up on her 13-year-old son's activities even if she wants to. He set the whole computer up, she says. He can do whatever he wants. Tom Horan, a New Mexico lawyer and lobbyist, doesn't check his teenage sons' e-mail simply because, he acknowledges, he doesn't know how. At least Berger-Daar and Horan are honest. While more than 70% of parents in a recent Jupiter Communications survey asserted that they set at least some restrictions on their kids' Internet activities, a TIME/CNN poll of teenagers last week indicated that the kids see things somewhat differently: 62% said their parents know little or nothing about the websites their kids visit.

I think we know whom to trust. Parents who tell a pollster they're keeping an eye on things may really be relying wishfully on someone--anyone--else, probably at school. But schools and libraries stake a claim on too little of the child's time, and inescapable First Amendment issues make it unlikely that any public agency will be or should be able to play an effective role in controlling Net access and content. That can happen only at home. One family may respond to the Web's enticements by disconnecting the phone line; another may simply make them a regular topic of dinner conversation. And because we're each entitled to cleave to our own parenting ideology, both would be right.

But both should also understand that there are tools that can make the task easier and more effective, chiefly filters that bar access to offensive or dangerous content and monitors that tell you where the browser has been browsing. America Online, despite all the odious get-rich-quick or get-horny-quick e-mail that it can't seem to keep out of my own mailbox, has been particularly effective in helping parents give their children an online experience under the firm guidance of its editors: a kids-only AOL account blocks young users from all but full-time-monitored chat rooms and prescreened kid-friendly sites.

Many other filtering systems work differently from AOL's, dumbly applying a list of forbidden words against the content of any site the user tries to see or simply blocking access to a list of sites ruled obscene or otherwise objectionable. In both instances, the filter will almost always work like a blunt instrument. If you tried to get to the home page of the Almaden Valley (California) Youth Soccer League and you had a filter, you would be blocked because the filter, tuned to look out for pedophiles, might have the phrase Boys Under 12 on the proscribed list. If sex is labeled taboo, you can't read the poet Anne Sexton. Katherine Borsecnik, the senior AOL official involved in the development of the service's generally laudable parental controls, acknowledges that if I have a middle school child who's going to do a research report on breast cancer--a child with kids-only AOL access can't view sites with even straight medical information about breasts--I might want to turn off the filters while helping the child with the research.

Yet the most advanced filters available make it unnecessary to do so. CyberPatrol, a piece of retail software from the same company that manages AOL's Web filters, is a customizable system that allows parents to choose which types of sites to block based on the parents' criteria. I may not want to block my children from information about gay and lesbian politics, but let's say you do: CyberPatrol accommodates. So does Net Nanny.

Many parents don't realize that a simple click on the history tab on a browser tool bar will produce a list of links to every site the computer has visited recently. It's true that any canny 13-year-old knows how to delete potentially incriminating evidence from the history files. Already, though, there are several programs available, such as Cyber Snoop (at least the manufacturer doesn't euphemize), that create a tamperproof database--a trail of bread crumbs, as it were--so parents can examine every Web address the computer has visited since the last time Dad checked in. But consider this evidence of the complexity of the privacy issue: Susan Getgood, a vice president of the company that makes CyberPatrol, suggests that monitors have their own problems. If a preteen is a child of an alcoholic parent, she asks, and goes to a website that discusses alcohol abuse, and the parent finds out, what happens then?

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Many Internet service providers offer filtering services. But because of the need to appeal to the largest audience, they may go much further in their proscriptions than some parents would want. Amy Bruckman, a computer-science professor at Georgia Tech, points out that a lot of these filtering companies are not making clear what their values are, their method for deciding what is acceptable and what is not. That's why it's so important to buy a filter that can be tuned to your family's values.

The Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington advocacy organization, is leading a campaign to make information on the growing pool of safety tools more widely available on the Web. Parents need to be able to find this information in a central, organized place, says executive director Jerry Berman.

Still, even the best of these tools, deployed with the greatest care, work only when they're coupled with bold parental involvement. Bonnie Fell, of Skokie, Ill., is the family Internet cop, making certain at least once a month to open all the files that have been downloaded by her two teenage sons--which she'll do, she says, whether the boys are there or not. And they know it. Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Medfield, Mass., suggests that accompanying your child to a website he frequents is no different from checking out a playground where your kids go, to see that it's safe, to see who hangs around there.

Of course, if your kids are teenagers, they're eventually going to find ways to get online when you're not around. Or they'll have learned how to disable every filter but the one they cannot break on their own: the human bond between parent and child. I'm C.J.'s mother, so I'm responsible for what he does, says Kelley Jones, a Detroit single mom who generally allows her 13-year-old son to browse just about any website he wishes on the computer in the living room, as long as he discusses what he finds. Says Jones: It's a waste of time to blame technology for parents' mistakes. Or, as Jim Lynch, who manages message boards for the Boston-based Family Education Network, says, Parents are the ultimate filter.

As they always have been. Consider this picture: a kid sits alone in front of his computer, cruising the Internet. In the background a CD player blares misogynistic obscenities. In another room, the television features a teenage heroine contemplating violence against her classmates. The local sixplex is playing a film that spills more blood than a slaughterhouse hoses down in a month. And in most states, if you can't buy a gun with a few phone calls and a couple of hundred bucks, you haven't really tried.

Now you go into that kid's room, unplug the computer and walk out. What have you really accomplished?

Reported by Maryanne Murray Buechner/New York, Nichole Christian/Detroit, Wendy Cole and Maggie Sieger/Chicago, Nancy Harbert/Albuquerque, Michael Krantz/San Francisco and Elaine Marshall/Reno

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