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Online Dangers: How to "E-Proof" Your Kids

By Sarah Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #71, 2006.

The Internet is a jungle. How should homeschoolers deal with this growing part of 21st century life?
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Sarah Pride

Scenario 1: You don't use the family computer as much as the kids, but you trust them. One day you need to find that letter you typed to Aunt Margie last year. In searching your files, you find a folder full of nasty pictures! You confront your twelve-year-old, who honestly knows nothing about it. He has been using downloaded peer-to-peer (P2P) software to share music. He did not know how to configure this software, however, and he unwittingly opened up your entire hard drive to the world. Pornographers were using your computer to store and transfer files!

Scenario 2: Your daughter downloads TV shows off the Internet without paying for them. When you ask her about it, she says, "It's OK, so long as the show isn't being sold yet on DVD."

Scenario 3: Sometimes you see unsavory items pop up in your results when you are using a search engine. You realize that your children often use the same search engine for their own projects, and you worry about what they might see.

Kids Don't Get It

It will certainly come as no surprise to any parent that there are just as many ways to get into trouble on the Internet as in real life. The fact that startles many adults is the revelation that many kids don't make the connection between online actions and real-life consequences. Harris Interactive conducted a nationwide survey of kids at the start of this year and found that 92% of youth thought it was "always wrong" to take something from a store without paying and 85% thought it was always wrong to copy test answers, but only 60% thought it was always wrong to download music without paying. While 63% were worried about accidentally downloading a virus while illegally accessing files, only 38% were worried that the action itself was wrong.

It's not hard to understand why downloading illegally seems to a kid like an insignificant offense compared to stealing from a store. In a store you hold an actual product, which somebody obviously had to make. You can perceive that it must be worth something. In contrast, digital media costs nothing to duplicate hundreds of times, and it does not take up physical space. It's not easy to see that you are actually hurting anyone, and it is simple to imagine that nobody will ever catch you. Little Johnny and Kelly are especially at a disadvantage in grasping that illegal downloading is a crime, since kids' consciences often need prompting even for real-life stealing or lying.

Which is where parents come in. Some might prefer to keep their kids off the Internet entirely. However, that is not an option for many homeschoolers, since lots of us rely on the virtual world for our curriculum.

Sites that Can Help

Conveniently, plenty of resources exist to help parents explain Internet safety and ethics to their children. One of the best I've found is Net Family News (netfamilynews.org), which is an online newsletter on all topics safety- and ethics-related. It is excellent, but is obviously meant for parents, not kids, since the information covered is often disturbing. When I checked the site, their latest feature was on "How social influencing works," or the subtle ways in which people manipulate each other into making bad decisions. While this topic is directly related to Internet safety, it is also important knowledge for anyone who wants to function as an independent individual. The rest of the current issue has stories on everything from the growing popularity and risks of sites like MySpace to a French 18-year-old who lobbies to change copyright laws. If you want to stay educated on what is really happening in the virtual universe, this newsletter is for you.

For kids, check out the Cyber Tree House (cybertreehouse.com). The Business Software Alliance has created this friendly, Flash-based website with helpful games and links to teach kids how to conduct themselves on the Internet. It is geared toward the 9-12 age range, and can be used to reinforce instruction from parents. NetSmartz Kids (netsmartzkids.org) is another, similar website.

A number of these websites recommend that parents and children sign an "Internet use contract." You can find a sample on www.safekids.com/family-contract-for-online-safety/. These contracts contain provisions like, "I will never have a face-to-face meeting with someone I've met online." or, "I will never go into a new online area that is going to cost additional money without first asking permission from my parent or teacher." I think a contract is a good idea; it outlines exactly what you expect from your children, and it requires that they put their signature to the agreement. Once they've given their word, it's much harder for them to disobey. Also, it shows that you respect them as people who can stick to what they say.

Parental Control Software

Some parents may choose to use a "parental control utility," one of the programs that blocks kids from using certain software, conducting particular searches, or visiting smut websites. We haven't tried these ourselves, since we use mostly Macintosh machines and there just weren't any such blockers available for the Mac OS until a few months ago. In April, safeeyes.com released a Mac version of its popular parental control utility, which can operate cross-platform for households that use both Macs and PCs. Other options for PC include Safe Surf (safesurf.com), Net Nanny (netnanny.com) and Cyber Patrol (cyberpatrol.com).

Right now, the U.S. government regulates Internet activity very little, which is the way most of us would prefer it to remain. As the history of education tells us, the easiest way for the federal government to gain control of any area of society is to claim that a danger exists for children. If we want to keep the Internet free and open, we must reduce the danger ourselves by education and self-government. The resources exist, if we make ethical Internet behavior a priority.

Copyrights and Wrongs

And now for some specifics. One year at Patrick Henry College, the college administration was forced to tell us students that we were not allowed to watch movies in our dorm lounges because they were "public spaces." We had been watching movies freely in our lounges for some years, so we didn't know what to think. Our dorms were our temporary homes, and we were watching with our friends. How was that different from inviting people over to our actual homes? As a member of the student Technology Commission, I trekked the awesome tangles of Title 17 of the U.S. Code, studied case history, and found that there are "public" and "private" spaces, as well as a nebulous category in between. College dorm lounges are usually considered "public," although the rooms themselves are "private." We had to buy a license to watch movies in our lounges.

This scenario is typical of federal copyright law. It is cumbersome. Since much of the Internet is new, case law hasn't caught up to every development. Therefore, people are often ready to rationalize their illegal actions. Myths abound, such as the idea that it is OK to download a song and "try it out" once to see if you want to buy it. This is false, as is the justification for downloading TV shows "so long as the show isn't being sold yet on DVD."

In fact, it should be unnecessary for the government to define and explain every possible type of copyright violation, since a few basic principles govern all of copyright law. First, if you create something, it's yours. If you don't create it, it's not yours. Second, if you purchase something created by another person, you are buying it for your own, personal enjoyment. You may not distribute it, either for free or for a price. Third, fair use doctrine allows you to use part of another person's work for the purpose of parody, news reports, or scholarly papers-provided that you give appropriate attribution. And fourth, if in doubt, ask the owner. If your conscience tells you that the author would probably disapprove of your action, you are most likely violating copyright law.

Peer-to-Peer Sharing Traps

Because of this, almost all peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing is illegal. For those who don't know much about P2P programs, individuals use them to share files directly with each other instead of uploading to a central network first. AOL Instant Messenger provides some P2P capabilities through the use of "get files," folders in which users put files they want others to be able to access. Get files are limited by their very nature, however, since you generally have to know a person's nickname to access his get file at all, and then you don't know what you'll find there. On the other hand, straight-up peer-to-peer software like BitTorrent allows you to search for specific files on everyone who is linked into the network. You don't have any idea from whom you are downloading or who is downloading from you.

At this time, music companies cannot sue the networks that provide P2P services, because the networks are not sharing the files themselves. Instead, various organizations are suing individuals who are downloading or sharing illegally. Any time you use a P2P program such as BitTorrent for downloading a file for which you did not pay the owner you put yourself at risk for a lawsuit. You can read more about this and other issues at the United States Copyright Office website (copyright.gov).

Besides legal trouble, some P2P software can put your computer system at considerable risk. If a kid uses these programs without configuring them properly, he may unwittingly give over your entire Internet bandwidth to people downloading from the outside, thereby reducing all your own Internet activity to a crawl. Or he may render your whole system and all its software available to the outside world. Also, some people attach spyware or viruses onto a desirable item, so that even if you configure your P2P software correctly, a simple download can harm you. Spyware can send all your stored personal information to someone else, leading to identity theft or worse. Viruses can destroy your system. Most parents are not willing to take these risks, but lots of kids operate under the delusion that these things won't happen to them.


Despite common belief, it is not easy to wander into a dirty website by accident. You would have to follow a link without reading it, since the pornographers tend to make themselves as blatant as possible. Nonetheless, Internet smut of all sorts is only ever a few clicks away, and many otherwise worthy sites contain individual foul references. It has never been easier to give in to temptation. We must teach kids how to discern and avoid such sites and links.

Lately, the problem of finding unhealthy material on otherwise innocent sites has grown with the popularity of video-sharing websites such as MySpace, YouTube, and Google Video. Users upload homemade videos that run the whole gamut from unbelievably lame to hilariously funny to disturbingly explicit. These websites do their best to police for illegal or pornographic material, but some unavoidably slips through. Also, at least one of these websites merely flags smutty videos as "adult"-a flag that curious, unsupervised young people could choose to ignore. And when my mom used Google Video for the first time, to see a recommended juggling video, the site engine helpfully added links (to the right of the requested video) for "juggling," "Chris Bliss" the most popular juggler, and "sex," a category my mom most definitely has never requested! "Sex" might be a popular search term on Google Video, but by offering a link to sex-related videos the first time you visit their site, Google makes it shockingly easy for young people to venture into the world of sleaze. If your own kids use MySpace or one of the others, perhaps you should take a look yourself and see if they are being exposed to anything unhealthy.

Further, many sites geared to parents give bad advice on the topic of smut. One parenting website I read during my research recommended that parents take care not to overreact if they find a child accessing pornography every once in a while, because such curiosity is "natural." That may be true, in the same way that it is natural for an angry three-year-old to hit her friend in the head with a block, or for a first-time driver to crash his car. "Natural" does not always mean "desirable." Pornography can be a habit just as hard to lose and as spiritually damaging as drug addiction. Moreover, it is easier to hide. I would recommend that every family use a parental control program, if only to log the websites that children access. The knowledge that their parents will find out if they go anywhere inappropriate will eliminate temptation for most kids.

It is essential for homeschool parents to explain to their teenagers the true spiritual damage that pornography can cause to their future lives and families. Too often parents are uncomfortable with this topic, and so kids pick up their sexual knowledge by osmosis. In this world, osmosis is not enough. If teens understand how they really can hurt themselves, they will be better able to self-govern. See the two recommended books on page 22 for a good place to start.

Security vs. Freedom

The truly difficult question of Internet safety and ethics is the same as in the real world-how much freedom should kids have to thrive on their own or to learn from their own mistakes? In this messed-up world, how do we keep ourselves as "wise as serpents and as innocent as doves?"

I think the answer must be, "by moving slowly, with caution." No parents would send a fifteen-year-old with a new driver's permit on a two-hour road trip alone. Even if he has passed the test that shows he knows the rules of the road, he still must learn to apply them in actual driving experience before he can earn his license. For some teens this takes only a few weeks, but others need the full six months or even more. And once your young adult has his license, he will most likely still need governing rules. Some parents these days are even installing devices in their teens' cars to monitor how fast and far they drive. Why be so careful about driving? Because a mistake can physically cripple or kill.

Traveling the Internet may not be as dangerous as driving the highways, but the same principles apply-only you know when your children are ready to traverse it alone. And you know that at some point before they leave your roof they will have to be able to do so. Knowing this, why not start training now?


copyright.gov. U.S. government's official copyright office website. Forms, explanations, more.

cyberpatrol.com. Popular PC-based parental control software

cybertreehouse.com. Site to teach kids safe and proper net conduct

netfamilynews.org. Online safety and ethics newsletter for parents

netnanny.com. Popular PC-based parental control software

netsmartzkids.org. Site to teach kids net safety and ethics

safeeyes.com. A new parental control product that works on Macintoshes

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