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CyberNOT! A real-world guide to porn-proofing kids

CyberNOT! A real-world guide to porn-proofing kids
by Rodolpho Carrasco
in Religion News Service, February 1996
(Rodolpho Carrasco is associate director of Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, Calif. and a columnist for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group. Check out more articles by Rodolpho Carrasco here.)

In their June ruling blocking enforcement of the Communications Decency Act that sought to outlaw offensive material on the Internet, a panel of federal judges from the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia revealed some useful information on Internet porn: It's hard for kids to find.

With their ruling, the judges left it to the Supreme Court to decide whether porn on the Internet should be outlawed. And, as parents wait for that matter to be settled, the troublesome question remains of how parents and teachers should supervise children as they wander the virtual streets of cyberspace.

In their analysis of 123 case-established facts regarding the Internet, the judges acknowledged what experienced Internet users have known for some time: Getting information over the Net requires sophistication and abilities beyond those of unattended children.

Let's get real: Forbidden information may be hard to find, but kids are inventive and drawn to it like a magnet. At the urban youth center where I work, teens give me every reason to be concerned. Human nature being what it is, kids especially teens use their creativity and intelligence to explore forbidden areas of life. Most young people I know need some form of supervision and guidance.

If you are a parent seeking to guide your kids in a healthy use of the Internet, consider these three methods:

1. Purchase porn-blocking software

In their ruling, the judges note eight software programs that police the Internet by blocking objectionable material from appearing on your computer screen. Among these are Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, Parental Guidance and SurfWatch.

SurfWatch and Cyber Patrol are installed on the computers our youth groups use. Perhaps the best program to start with is SurfWatch. Surfwatch works by placing a ``filter file'' on the hard disk containing two types of important information: Site addresses (URLs) of locations known to contain sexually explicit or other offensive material, and a list of keywords (sex, nude, etc.) deemed to link to offensive sites.

The software functions by blocking access to a site. If you type into the browser ``www.playboy.com'' the SurfWatch software returns a gray screen with the words ``Blocked by SurfWatch.''

SurfWatch is not perfect. The keyword-sensitive software regularly blocks access to otherwise tame material:

A CNN Interactive news story on sexually transmitted diseases: Blocked by SurfWatch.

A USA Today story on the Communications Decency Act: Blocked by SurfWatch.

Even the home page of Menlo Park, Calif., Presbyterian Church's twentysomething ministry: Blocked by SurfWatch.

All three were blocked for containing certain key words that are forbidden by SurfWatch such as ``adult'' in the case of Menlo Park church.

For parents, the simple work-around to these irritations is to turn off SurfWatch in the control panel. Click the OFF button and a password box appears. Type in the password (which, presumably, your youngster does not know) and surf unfettered. This on-off password option is SurfWatch's only control.

The anti-porn software known as Cyber Patrol takes a different approach, allowing parents to restrict access to Web sites, newsgroups and gopher sites. If you're worried that the kids will surf unsupervised during times when you're not home, you can block general Internet access during certain hours of the day. And if kids are spending too much time at ESPNet's SportsZone and not enough time at the Electronic Library, you can manually place SportsZone on Cyber Patrol's CyberNOT! list of restricted sites.

2. Create a porn-blocking environment

Don't just rely on software to police your young cybersurfer. Kids are inventive and may discover your password.

In addition, blocking software now on the market scans for text, but can't do anything to stop a file full of objectionable visuals with a seemingly innocent title such as ``Sunset in Los Angeles.''

A more comprehensive strategy involves teaching kids about the hazards of cyberspace and involving them in the policing process. At the Bresee Youth Center in Los Angeles, computer teacher Cathy Trout maintains a peer discipline culture where kids monitor themselves and each other.

Before accessing the Internet, young people at Bresee fill out a contract. They agree not to visit sites with objectionable material, and not to give out their address or arrange to meet people off line. Parents are involved in these negotiations; they also sign the contract.

``Our thought isn't to restrict, but to protect them from negative things and from being victimized,'' says Trout.

One of the more effective penalties for errant use is group discipline, whereby the whole group may be penalized for the actions of one.

``One girl was about to give out her address in a chat room,'' says Trout, ``and the other kids got angry and stopped her.''

At Bresee it's not cool to break the rules. The same can be true in your home, even if you only have one child. Remember, your child has friends.

3. Be more than a cybercop

Porn-blocking software and self-policing cybercultures are only as effective as the parent in charge. It takes a parent to acquire, set up and maintain blocking software. It takes a parent to enforce a safe, porn-proof environment. It takes a parent to experience, in a positive manner, the adventures kids have in cyberspace.

But there is a computer literacy gap between most parents and their kids, and bridging it seems difficult. Many feel overburdened by work and parenthood and perhaps fearful of new technology.

Some take the easy way out by not having a home computer and discouraging their children from using other kids' computers. But the Internet can't be avoided. In schools, in stores or in the homes of their friends, kids are getting online.

Parents wanting to bridge the gap may consider how one group approaches the overburdened parent problem.

In my drug- and gang-infested neighborhood, some families rely on each other for help in raising and protecting our children. We support each other in daycare, in crises, in times of financial need, and now in policing the Internet. All computers in our circle linked to the Internet have blocking software installed. And all interested parents are taking steps to learn how to use the Internet.

There are other ways to enter the cyberage. A plethora of television shows, community college classes and community-based seminars on learning the Internet are becoming part of the American landscape.

The best way is to put all pride aside by consulting your own child. You probably have an on-line expert right in your home. Seek your child's technological know-how as you guide him or her in responsible behavior. Both of you have a great deal to gain.

No matter how you do it, do it. No longer can you afford to be a techno-phobe. The time has come to teach children all our children to walk the virtual streets safely.

 

The copyright for these materials are owned by Rudy Carrasco.  These materials were used with permission by TechMission