Ulanoff: Parents Need to Know What Kids Are Doing Online

The other day I took my two kids — my 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter — to Times Square in Manhattan.

I kissed them both on the cheek, told them to have fun and be careful, and then left them there — all day.

Okay, I didn't really do this, but millions of parents around the country are essentially doing the same thing when they leave their children to their own devices while on the Internet.

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Here's the common scenario:

A child anywhere from 6 to 16 campaigns for a new PC for his or her bedroom. Parents hem and haw and complain about expense, but, in the end, they give in and buy a value PC that can handle basic tasks — e-mail, word processing and Web browsing.

Once the new PC is set up and running, a second conversation ensues.

Child: "I need Internet access."

Mom: "We have it on your dad's PC. Use that."

Child: "I don't wanna. I need it on this one, so I can work on my book reports and, like, find stuff for current events. And all my friends are talking on AIM."

Mom: "So?"

Child: "Mom, I don't want kids to think I'm weird. I need to be on."

Mom: "How often?"

Child: "Not too much, I promise."

Life is full of such little lies. Of course, Mom gives in and Junior gets Internet access in his bedroom.

Within minutes, he's signing up for a free AIM handle — usually through his parents' AOL Internet access (Side note: Why is anyone still paying for this?).

The child goes online and now he's, for all intents and purposes, all alone in the "big city."

No one is watching him. No one is protecting him. And no one is making sure this kid follows basic online rules of conduct.

In fact, as far as the kid knows, there are none. He's left alone to run into trouble and create trouble.

Many kids discover the Internet's lack of rules and regulations early on. They create impossible-to-decipher screen names and then, once they've learned the screen names for their friends, wreak a little havoc. Sometimes they even claim to be other people.

Outside of instant messaging, they're setting up MySpace pages, visiting Web sites found through Google, and essentially walking down every dark Internet alleyway none the wiser.

Such freedom! Isn't this sprawling Internet metropolis wonderful?

Such recklessness.

New AIM accounts are almost always trolled by AIM predators and bots.

The predators hope to stumble on fresh meat to manipulate. Bots are there to test your security defenses — if they're weak, the kid and his PC are in trouble.

While all this is going on in the bedroom, the clueless parent is in the kitchen, making dinner, cleaning up and caring for the family. What they really should be caring about is what's going on in that bedroom on that PC.

My child's grade school has held talks at various PTA meetings, educating parents on the various online dangers. They instruct parents about the proper placement of an Internet-connected PC. Of course, the parents who really need to hear this are typically not in attendance.

So how do we warn parents about the dangers of putting an Internet-connected system in a child's bedroom? How do we make them understand that this can be a dangerous mistake?

Circuit City, Best Buy, Dell, Gateway, and others often advertise how they're here to help us: Their great products can help us achieve our goals and even connect with our friends, family, and workplace in more meaningful ways.

What if there was a new kind of document included with each system shipped by Dell and others?

Let's call it The Parents' Good Sense Technology Guide. It could list some key points every parent should keep in mind, with topic headers such as these:

— System Placement: The Family PC Room

— Security: Hardware, Software, and Common Sense

— Personal Information: It's Not for Sharing

— The Dangers Your Family Faces and How to Avoid Them: You Can Have the Biggest Impact

This will never happen because manufacturers would worry that scared consumers would pack up the PCs and send them back.

So, friends, it's up to all of you to spread the word. I know friends, relatives, and coworkers often call you, asking for tech advice. Why not start sharing your own Parents Good Sense Technology Guide?

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