Net Safety

Real Safety on the Net


*The Internet has always been something of a dark and scary place.  These days, it's at both its most dangerous and its safest.  Most dangerous because the growth of the Net has, naturally, made it more accessible to negative elements - specifically, pornographers and predators.  Safest because a great deal of public awareness has been focused on this phenomenon, inspiring people like you to seek out resources like this document, which will tell you how to make sure your children are at their safest while online.

 Of course, this information is only as good as you make it.  The most fundamental rules in assuring the safety of your charges online are the rules you already follow as a parent - keep an eye on your kids, and stay involved in what they do.  Of course, as your children grow older and more experienced, you have to give them room to assert themselves - that's a part of raising children - but now that very young children, even under age 6, are going online, it's more essential than ever to be an active presence near the keyboard.  99% of all potential problems can be averted by a smart adult sitting by the computer, able to say "You shouldn't talk to that person, dear."  As parents, we teach our children to not talk to strangers, and though the net's potential to bridge geographical barriers must not be ignored, young children can't tell the difference between a good stranger and a bad stranger, so it's best to play it safe. 

 In short, apply the same approach you use in day-to-day "real life" parenting to your online parenting.

 That said, there are a few specific things that are worth noting about the online world.  The rest of this document deals with net-specific phenomena - challenges that, due to the technical and operational differences between the real world and cyberspace, require new approaches and attention.  The four areas we're going to work with are chat rooms, contact lists/instant messaging, the web, and email.

 *  Chat rooms.  A lot of the stories involving sexual predators online involve "chat rooms," the usually open-access, real-time online centers where many people can gather under assumed aliases and say what they like.  Chat rooms are worth avoiding for two reasons, one mundane and one very serious: they attract stupid people, and they attract predators.  The latter is no surprise, with chat room topics as broad as "Teen Chat" or "TV."  Certainly, realtime socializing online is a wonderful thing. But get your kids out of the broad rooms, where very little of interest is said anyway (half of all chat room conversation is, and I quote, "hey dudes where are you all from anybody like Marilyn Manson???????").  Different chat utilities make it fairly easy to start your own chat rooms - encourage your kids to make, say, a room for their friends from school.  And the more specific a chat room's topic, the safer it will probably be.  Your kid will enjoy a much less dangerous, and much more rewarding, experience in, say, a chat room operated by their favorite rock band's fan club than one devoted to just "Music."  A side bonus of the fan-club route is that such chat rooms are often tightly operated, meaning that the operators of the chat room will be vigorous in kicking out people who annoy the other members or make suggestive comments.

 * Contact List/Instant-messaging Software. Several pieces of software released in the last few years are designed around the concept of a "buddy list" or "contact list" - when you download the software, you enter a username, password, and other details into a large internet database, and you can construct an electronic list of other usernames.  That is, I might have a contact list of several of my friends' screen-names - let's say "Jackal54," "The_Doctor," and "DragonWarrior."  When I load the instant-message program, it contacts the master database across the net, and sees who on my buddy list is presently online and running the program. If Jackal54 is in that position, his name on my buddy list might be highlighted, or change colors, or otherwise indicate that he's online.  I can then send nearly instantaneous short-messages to him, or start a live, one-on-one chat session with him.

 This system, spawned by programs as Mirabilis ICQ ( and AOL InstantMessager (AIM) (, is popular for a number of reasons.  It has an immediacy lacking in email; it offers much more privacy than chat rooms; and it lets you see with some reliability if your contacts are online at all.  Naturally, these are also reasons why the services have become popular with the "unpleasant elements" of the online world.  Thankfully, both of the main instant-messaging programs have built tools into the software to make it very easy to prevent chronic harassment. 

 In terms of keeping strangers from contacting you to begin with, both programs have mechanisms to block those who are not on yourcontact list from contacting you. You can also create ignore/block lists of specific screen-names that you do not wish to contact you; if you are online, these persons' contact lists will not even register your presence.

 Between all of these available controls, it's a wonder I still hear of people who were continually instant-messaged by a harassing figure online, and ultimately avoided going online to avoid that person.  With these programs, it really is a matter of a few clicks of the mouse to ensure your privacy.

 * The Web.  Home of much of the "objectionable" contents we're all concerned about, the Web is a tremendous resource.  Despite its size, it's fairly difficult to get truly lost in it, since you can always click your way back the way you came, and for the most part you don't go anywhere you don't direct your browser to take you. That is, a person using the web only goes where they type or click to go, unless a page they go to has a redirection script that forcibly takes him/her to some other page, a device used commonly when pages move around and the old location is kept as a signpost to the new.

What this all leads up to is the fact that while pornography is, of course, rampant on the web, you have more control over whether it will appear on your child's computer than you do when dealing with, say, email (more on that later).   Once again, most potential problems can be avoided by exercising supervision; with the web, you can often do this without being physically present when your child is online, as both Internet Explorer and Netscape keep "history" files indicating recently-accessed pages.  This smacks of spy tactics to some, and raises questions about trust which are beyond the scope of this document; but however you choose to interpret the History, it is a tool that is available to you.

A more palatable option for many parents is the filtering route.  Filtering software, such as "NetNanny," simply keeps the user of a browser from accessing "adults-only" sites.  Or, perhaps, not so simply.  The web is not so compartmentalized as to allow a program to glance at a site, examine some virtual ID card, and determine that the page is rated PG-13.  So filtering software relies on a number of sometimes-dodgy methods to check a page before it is displayed.  Some of these programs rely on giant lists of sites that have been examined and deemed "bad" by someone else; you download a "bad list" from the software's webpage and update it every so often to keep up with the plethora of new sites that appear constantly.  You can also customize some programs to block all webpages (and, in some cases, Usenet newsgroups, chat rooms, etc) containing certain words.

The downsides to the filtering approach are significant: with the "list" route, the lists are inherently going to be out-of-date at all times, and may well include sites you personally would approve of your child getting access to. Filtering based on "objectionable" words opens up even more problems.  A computer can't tell the difference between textual pornography and a guide to protecting oneself from STDs.  And there is the classic example of the "Super Bowl XXX" website, whose roman numerals understandably confused some of the major filtering programs. So, once again, the only truly 100% safe route is to keep an eye on your child until you trust them enough to explore the web on his or her own.  Letting them explore "freely," but with a filter on, may be somewhat paradoxical, but it could serve as a good middle step between constant observation and handing over the reins.

A few other notes on the web - as stated above, it is very rare that plans for bombs or invitations to explicit sex sites will appear totally unbidden.  The exceptions are "typo sites," which catch people by having domain names similar to popular webpages whose names people are likely to mistype (,, or something similar), and banner ads, graphics that independent web-masters often place on their pages as part of a "sponsorship" deal in which the webmaster gets some sort of compensation for keeping the ad up.  The mechanics of this need not be gone into; what it means is that completely mundane pages may feature risque advertisements.  There's not much anyone can do about this; the best approach one can take is to exercise judgement in what pages one visits - you can always tell when you've driven into the wrong side of town, and as time goes by you'll have the same instincts about the seedy, low-integrity parts of the net.

* Email.  A very, very useful and efficient means of communication, email suffers all the problems that face normal mail, only in greater quantity, plus a few others. The same unscrupulous types that send junk mail, chain letters, and mail bombs in real life are prone to do it online as well, and in greater quantity since they don't have to pay for postage. Of course, the mail bombs aren't real explosives (just massive floods of identical emails), and the junk mail and chain letters are even easier to get rid of than in real life, so to an extent these aren't a huge problem.  Bear in mind, though, that massive amounts of incoming email can crash your internet provider's mail server, which is definitely not a good thing.

Be sure to talk to your kids about attached files and virus safety.  Intelligence and caution must be exercised in dealing with files sent via email.  Tell your children never to load attached files sent by someone they're not absolutely sure they know. I say "absolutely sure" because virus-mongers (and junk-mailers) have recently experimented more and more with ambiguous subject tags that encourage you to think the file is something you want, sent by a friend - i.e., "Hey, it's John, here's a funny file :)."  That said, it's important to know that there's a number of things that can't be viruses, for various reasons, and that there are plenty of virus hoaxes out there.  In general, any virus warning that involves some sort of ridiculously ghastly scenario (it will delete your hard drive and go on to spew toxic gas from your computer's fan and fire bullets made of magnetic tape out of the floppy drive) is a hoax.  For specifics, have a look at the ICSA's Virus Hoaxes page (  Keeping your child aware of virus hoaxes will make them better net-citizens - as will reminding them that the "forward email" button is not a toy, and that, in general, email should follow the same rules of thought and politeness that apply to any form of communication.  Email just happens to be really fast, which doesn't change how it should be used for the most part...but I digress.  Back to the "adult content" issues.

Since no laws regulate unsolicited adult content online, a great deal of junk (or "spam") email is adult in nature.  Usually, adult spam mail consists of some sort of obviously sexual subject tag ("HOT YOUNG GIRLS LOOKING FOR YOU!!!!"), and an advertisement for a webpage that features more of the same.  Filtering out stuff like this can, again, be done with software, and you may be quite successful in trying to find effective-but-not-too-restrictive filters for email.  Also, in recent years, large internet providers have taken steps to try and block any incoming email that has more than a certain number of recipients - that is, if something is being sent to 10,000 people, it is much more likely an unsolicited ad than a personal note.   (This explanation, of course, simplifies things from a technical standpoint, but it will do for our purposes.)

A more extreme route to protect your kids is to not arrange for them to have their own email addresses at all; they can, after all, just use yours.  This does, of course, have privacy-invading connotations, and again a judgement based on the child's readiness is in order.


In conclusion, I'd just like to reiterate the main points I've made throughout this paper.  There is no substitute for good parenting, and no amount of filtering software can match the simple act of standing by your kids as they go online. Building friendships in private is important too, and as a parent, it's your job to ultimately decide when to let go and trust your kids to exercise the discretion you've taught them to have. In the meantime, though, I encourage you to use the knowledge I've imparted above to make your time spent by the computer more effective.  Good day, and happy surfing.

 By: Addison Godel

2728 Clairmont Road NE
Atlanta, GA 30329

Phone 404-634-5588

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