As long as a computer with access to the Internet is in your home, the whole universe, with all its knowledge — and dangers — is at your child’s fingertips.


 

 

Recently, I did something I shouldn’t, but I’m grudgingly glad I did. Snooping is always a double-edged sword, even if you do it to monitor your children.

It came about innocently enough — a friend of my son’s, who moved away, still calls frequently. Yes, the friend is a girl, and yes, she is sweet on him.

I picked up the phone to make a call, not knowing they were chatting. I heard her cussing like sailor. I can’t say I was shocked — but I did slip comfortably into a stern place. My son isn’t one to swear, and I don’t want him to start, so I admonished her.

Then, she called a few days later. Now here is where I’m embarrassed. I listened in (she had denied swearing, though I clearly heard her). Much to my amusement, she confessed about how scared she was of getting me on the phone because I would “yell” at her for swearing.

Then the conversation went to one of their shared passions: anime. That is when I was in for more of a shock than a string of curses. I learned my son’s friend had gone on a site that had something called “hentai.”

My son sighed in exasperation — the term wasn’t new to him. Hentai is the anime form of, you guessed it, pornography.

Great, I thought, all children have to do is type in their favorite character from Yu-gi-Oh or Naruto and Japanese smut pollutes the computer.

Recently, more because of computer troubles with a virus, we installed a security system on our computer that is a veritable Fort Knox, and to my relief, it also has parental controls, which my husband installed.

I always had trusted my son to avoid questionable sites — this is a child who refused to take “human growth and development,” the new buzz word for sex education. Still, I was cautious he not play online games unsupervised, and he knew to never give out his personal information.

Yet this doesn’t seem to be enough. As long as a computer with access to the Internet is in your home, the whole universe, with all its knowledge — and dangers — is at your child’s fingertips.

I couldn’t care less if adults find hentai amusing, but I don’t want my children looking for their next action figure and coming across Lord only knows what.

Also, both my children are getting to the age where they e-mail, although neither instant message, use cell phones or text messages — but all of that will come.

One way to keep the Fort Knox atmosphere going is to continue to share my e-mail account with them, so I see all messages. I don’t need to open them, but heck, with the one lone friend who does e-mail him (yes, the girl), I can recognize the address.

Experts advise keeping your computer in a common area to monitor activity, but truth be told, many children do have them in their rooms. In our home, the boys’ playroom is downstairs, where I am not in much.

Google does have a preference bar you can use to set strict controls so innocent searches don’t yield inappropriate sites.

Parents also can opt for an array of programs they can purchase to do everything from block sites, limit time and spy.

But given my own guilt about listening to a phone call, I won’t be spying again anytime soon.

I’d rather opt for the philosophy self-sufficiency and common sense will help my children make the right choices — with a little help from parental blocks, of course.

Yet one day, in the not-too-distant future, the training wheels of parental controls will come off, and my children will have to apply the common sense we’ve instilled in them to use the Internet safely — to navigate this strange, anonymous cyberform of the real world.

It’s so crucial they learn about cyberbullying, and how to treat others with kindness; the way they would like to be treated still applies when they are sequestered behind the anonymity of their computer screen.

They will need to learn not to say or do anything they wouldn’t say or do in real life via the Internet. That’s tricky, even for adults. Anonymity is a seductive place — it’s so much easier to be cruel, or impulsive.

They need to know, like everyone, anything can be traced back to their computer, and the privacy they think they have is an illusion.

I once heard the most powerful piece of advice that would make the world a civil place if we could all tap into our higher selves to heed it. The words were from Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister of India. She said something to the effect of “don’t do or say anything in private you wouldn’t do in public.”

Well, of course that could take the fun out of a few things, but even idle gossip can be harmful, can’t it?

It’s sound advice on the whole — one Gandhi uttered long before cyberspace mushroomed at a pace that outstripped humanity’s grasp upon it. 

The fear of online predators is a real one — and the trick seems to be not live in fear, but to tread cautiously.

The State of Connecticut has an excellent Web site for parents, www.ikeepsafe.org, that offers good tips, as does www.cybersmart.org and www.getnetwise.org.

If parents suspect anyone of inappropriate contact with their child via the Internet, they can call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.

Sharma Howard, features writer for the Norwich Bulletin and mother of two boys, writes every Monday about parenting in the new age of media and technology. Reach her at showard@norwichbulletin.com