Keeping Kids Safe on the Web

At just 10 years old, Jacob Greenfield has developed a strong interest in computers — building Web pages, editing movies and playing intricate games on his laptop. His increased online usage, however, worries his mother, Leslie Greenfield, who's read horror stories in the news about sexual predators using the Internet to lure young victims.

"The thing that worries me the most is that he doesn't really understand the dangers of putting personal information online," said Greenfield, of Wynnewood. "He has his own Web site, and we told him, 'We don't want your name, address, birthday or school on the site — nothing to identify you.' "

Greenfield, also wary of her son being exposed to material displayed on pornographic, violence-laden or racist Web sites, installed parental-control software to block certain Web pages.

"We asked him to let us know when he's online, so we can come over and look over his shoulder," said Greenfield, who recently enrolled her computer enthusiast in ID Tech Camp at Villanova University.

Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an organization that promotes online security and education, would agree with Greenfield's cyber-safety methods.

"If you can teach kids not to post too much personal info online, it's going to work," she said. "If you teach them not to communicate with people they don't know in real life, it's going to work."

She also recommended that parents keep the computer in a common area of the household, limit time in cyberspace, install Web-site surf-control software, and have their children use a search engine built for kids, as opposed to using the adult ones.

Aftab also stressed that parents do not need to be computer savvy to make a difference.

"You don't have to be a drug-user to keep your kids safe from drugs. It's all about communication, and has never been about technology," said Aftab, who noted that parents should discuss cyber-safety with kids as young as 3 or 4. "The more you talk, the safer they're going to be."

Aftab also noted that she has come across young Jewish Internet users who seem extra careful about exposing their ethnicity online or posting pictures of them wearing a yarmulke.

"There are a lot of people out there who would like to hurt people just because they are Jewish," she said.

Blocking Certain Influences
The dangers of the Internet have also forced organizations to take progressive action to keep children safe.

The Abington School District, for example, has implemented comprehensive firewall protection that blocks access to Web sites and chat rooms deemed inappropriate for its students, according to superintendent Amy Sichel.

Sichel also mentioned that the school district invites families to participate in workshops about online safety, as well as releases newsletters with helpful hints about the issue for parents.

"We hope it translates to what the students do at home," stated the superintendent.

Also on the lookout is Golden Slipper overnight camp, which offers Internet access to its 7- to 15-year-old campers; it's gotten into the habit of promoting safe online usage. The camp — whose president, Howard Levin, estimates that the camper population is about 70 percent Jewish — completely blocks social networking sites like www.myspace. com, which earlier this year fell under criticism for allowing teenagers to post personal information in the public arena. It also filters out adult-oriented or hate-filled material.

That said, "the most important component is the supervision provided by the counselors — period," claimed Mitch Parker, who runs the camp's computer activity. "You can have all the software in the world, but having someone looking at them while they are using the computers is the best thing."

Stacey Cylinder, a mother of four children ranging from ages 10 to 14 — all of whom attend Golden Slipper — warned her children about the dangers that online usage can bring, but trusts them to make the right decisions when it comes to communicating through computers.

"Today, everyone is afraid of everything," she insisted. "If you do everything for your child, then you're not teaching them to be responsible adults."


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