Parents of Internet surfers must be on guard online
Don't log off when your kids log on.
Experts fear too many parents don't heed that advice, and instead let their children surf the sometimes uncharted waters of the Internet alone.
But now they have some help: a town hall meeting at Anne Arundel Community College next week.
Called "Caught in the Web: What Kids are Doing Online," it will feature a six-member panel of cyber-experts and net-savvy teens who'll explain current trends and offer suggestions to help parents cope in the computer age.
"I hope they come away with a balanced perspective of how the Web can be used as a marvelous educational and socialization tool - and on the other side, how it can be a source of danger," said Louis Aymard, a child psychologist and head of AACC's Family Outreach Network.
The network, which offers lifelong learning programs for parents, is hosting the meeting. It's the fourth in a series examining issues that impact today's youth.
Mr. Aymard, who originated the series, will be one of the panelists. The others include: Elizabeth Harrison, project manager of the college's Cybercrime Studies Institute^; Ann Gibbs, founding director of the Annapolis-based Computer Tutor^; Richard Seabrook, associate professor of computer science at the college^; and two high school students.
"I think too many parents don't have a clue (what kids are doing online)," Ms. Harrison said. "Some do, and some don't know how to find out."
Children left unsupervised can sometimes unwittingly give out personal information^; fall victim to cyber-predators^; fall under the spell of hate sites without realizing their origin or analyzing their veracity^; or just be needlessly exposed to explicit spam or pornography, she said.
"Some (parents) may be shocked at what their children are doing (on the computer)," she said. "Parents just need to be more alert and aware."
Ms. Gibbs said a lot of kids just go to their rooms, shut the door, and start surfing - totally without parental supervision. Most play games - but it would be good if parents knew that, she said.
"(The forum) will be interesting," she said. "It'll be fun. (And) maybe it'll take the lock off the bedroom door."
Mr. Aymard said the computer gap between parents and children starts with the way both generations view the machines.
Parents tend to think of the computer mainly as a business tool, he said. But for children, it's a source of entertainment and educational opportunities, he said.
Stephen Steele, a sociologist who shares an office with Mr. Aymard, added that the computer can also serve as a surrogate socialization agent for children - which is both good and bad.
"Constantly, colleagues complain that students don't read," he said. "But watch them pull up (text messages) on their cell phones. It's not as if modern students are stupid. They're bright, but communicate differently. Kids are constantly wired."
At 4, Debbie Martin's daughter, Allison, already knows how to use the mouse and is comfortable playing computer games. But Ms. Martin, of West River, always goes online with her daughter - and the computer is in a central location in the house.
These are two tips experts recommend so that parents can keep tabs on their children's Internet habits.
For children under 10, they also suggested limiting access time to the computer.
Mrs. Martin doesn't worry too much about her children's online habits since they're still very young (her other child, Christopher, is 2). But that may change as they get older.
"Everyone keeps telling me the worry never stops, it just changes," she said.
As children mature, experts said parents can let them use the computer without constant supervision. They still need to check on their children, though, and maybe take a look at the machine's cache to make sure they're visiting appropriate sites. Installing a Net Nanny or another kind of monitoring software isn't a bad idea, either, experts said.
"Some parents feel intimidated," Ms. Harrison said. "Parents feel kids know more than they do (about the computer). But they can learn. Talk to your child. Too many parents don't."
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