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Keeping A Watchful Eye

In the early years of childhood, parents are used to keeping a watchful eye as their children develop new skills. Whether it's taking first steps, riding a bicycle or using a microwave, we are there to guard and guide.

So it is with technology, especially the Internet. The skills children learn now will empower, educate and entertain them the rest of their lives. But as we teach them the dangers of hot stoves and of not looking both ways - without frightening them off food and travel - we also must teach our kids safe and wise ways to use technology.

Being there

Rolling solo is not an option for young children learning to use a computer, tech toys or other devices. Young children should have adult supervision when on the computer. At the very least, an expensive computer, game device or phone probably won't be broken if you're there to ensure its safety. Younger children will feel more confident if you're present to help them through something they don't understand.

More important is your presence and guidance when children want to venture out into the World Wide Web. Even preschoolers are aware of it - they may know, in theory, more about PBSKids.org and NickJr.com than you do.

It's just as important to monitor school-age children's computer and video game use. Keep computers, including laptops, in common areas of your home, so that you can keep an eye on things, even at a short distance.

Keep a short leash

As your child gets older and more familiar (perhaps through classes at school) with computer usage, you may begin to hear a familiar refrain: "I can do it myself!" If you're comfortable with your child's operational skills, consider kid-friendly browser programs such as KidZui, KidRocket and My Kids Browser. (Be sure to check for compatibility with your operating system; many are not Mac-compatible.) They will allow her to learn to surf in safe waters with some independence. GetNetWise.org offers a list of additional children's browsers.

School-age children may have a legitimate need - homework! - to use a traditional search engine with your regular browser. Again, you'll want to be at his side. You'll be teaching him the principles of keyword searching; at the same time, you'll be able to steer him away from off-base or off-color content. To help with the latter, check out "safe search" options on major search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN; those settings allow you to restrict what content comes up. Content filters, like Kidswatch and NetNanny, operate on the same principle but take filtering a step further: They screen across the Web, not just search results.

Now is also the time to teach your child what to do if he does run across inappropriate or disturbing content. Instruct him to let you know if he stumbles upon anything that makes him feel uncomfortable or runs counter to the values your family holds.

By second or third grade, don't be surprised if your child asks for her own e-mail address. Most Internet service providers offer multiple e-mail accounts. Or you easily can set up a Web-based account through Yahoo, Gmail or Hotmail. Make sure you have access to it and can set preferences for it. You can limit incoming e-mail to a set list of addresses. Most e-mail programs, like Outlook or Apple Mail, allow you to create "rules" that will filter messages with undesired keywords to a "screened mail" folder.

Just as you would teach your child safe, responsible use of the telephone, instruct her in safe e-mail use: Don't give your address to strangers; don't reveal personal information to people you don't know, including other "children"; don't open attachments without screening for viruses.

Do your homework

As your young techie gains confidence, he'll develop an interest in other sites. Friends may want to exchange e-mail addresses or video games, mention other sites, or share photos. Before that happens, it's wise to have your family Web policy in place. Some points you might consider:

  • Discuss with your child acceptable and inappropriate content. Be clear on what you will and will not allow.
  • Set time limits for computer, video game and other use.
  • Vet new sites before, and while, your child visits them.
  • If you allow your child to exchange games for Nintendo DS and other devices, require him to get your approval for new games.
  • Say no to any site feature that asks for e-mail or other personal information.
  • If you allow your child an e-mail account, make sure you manage it.

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