WASHINGTON – It's easy for your kids to chat online. And it's just as easy for predators to chat with your children. On top of concerns about criminal conduct and adult content, children can also be exposed to cyber bullying and trash talk.
But the Internet is here to stay. So experts say it's more important than ever for parents and other adults to take responsibility and make sure that youngsters are protected.
"Parents need to learn how to control the media. You can get anything you want on the Internet. It's got an amazing amount of content that most parents would find objectionable," said Dr. Victor Strasburger, chairman for the American Academy of Pediatrics communications and media council.
Here are five ways to keep things safe:
1. Get smart
Most parents are confident that they're keeping track of what their kids are doing on the Internet. Almost three-quarters of parents with children 9 or older using the Internet at home said they know "a lot" about their children's online activities, according to a June survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Despite the Kaiser report, "most parents are pretty clueless about what their children are seeing," Strasburger contends.
As any kid with basic computer savvy can illustrate, it takes seconds to erase evidence that he or she has visited a forbidden site, or engaged in other banned activities.
Educating a generation of less-tech savvy parents will help them keep better track of their kids. It could also give them a feeling of comfort and expertise so they don't feel intimated.
"Yes, your kids may have more knowledge and experience of how to use these technologies, but you as parents have far more discernment and wisdom. We tell [parents] not to abdicate responsibility simply because you're not 100% certain about technology," said Stephen Balkam, founder and chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute.
2. Chat in real life
The most important step a parent can take is to talk to their kids about sex, violence and abuse -- hopefully before they are deluged with images and written content on the Internet, experts say.
"I think parents need to understand that they trump the media if they are willing to talk about the issues that they are concerned about," Strasburger said. "So parents need to have conversations with their kids at a young age."
MySpace.com, the online community, recommends that parents tell teens not to give personal information to e-strangers and to be careful about photos. After all, the Internet has a way of hanging onto information even after a user tries to delete it.
3. Take advantage of tools
A vast array of tools -- many free -- is available to control online use.
"There's never been a time in history where there have been so many tools available to tailor your children's online experience," Balkam said.
Some recommended sites that provide information are StaySafe.org, GetNetWise.org and iKeepSafe.org, according to Adam Thierer, who authored a recently released report on parental controls and online child protection.
Thierer also favors parents using a "layered approach" when it comes to protection. That is, a parent can combine content filters -- through an Internet service provider or software -- with "safe search" controls, such as Google's SafeSearch Filtering, and other tools.
Microsoft's new Vista operating system embeds family-safety tools and the latest generation of game consoles, such as Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PlayStation 3, has controls to restrict content and online play, and to limit playing to a list of approved friends.
"When it comes to video games we want to make sure that parents are aware that kids can play online, and they could be playing with strangers online," said Patricia Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
She added that monitoring your children's videogame play is "very important" to make sure that they do not download anything that could significantly change the content of a game.
MySpace.com also enables users to set their profiles to private.
4. Location, location, location
Another powerful step parents can take is to keep the Internet connection out of their kids' bedroom. Consider keeping an online connection only in a study or public family room.
"If your teenage son has to deal with a lot of foot traffic, he's obviously not going to be spending hours looking at porno sites," Strasburger said.
5. Reach out to other parents
Don't assume that everyone shares your standards about what's not acceptable content for children. If your kid is spending the night at a friend's or an afternoon away from your supervision, consider checking in with an adult who will be present.
It's reasonable to ask whether other families have Internet filters, Balkam said. He added that sometimes sharing your concerns can inform other parents who are "blissfully unaware" of what their own kids are doing.
Copyright (c) 2007 MarketWatch, Inc.