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Saturday, November 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Getting Started

Helping parents get more Net-savvy

Special to The Seattle Times

I am the mother of a 13-year-old who has a computer in her room and a laptop that goes with her to school every day.

She uses these computers to do Internet research for school, write essays, create presentations and do other assignments. She also uses them to e-mail friends, play games and visit Web sites that focus on karate, anime and other interests.

Should I worry about her use of the Internet? Is she at risk of being harassed by other kids or approached by a predator? The news continually reminds us of the dangers that lurk beyond kids' curiosity and na´ve trust of strangers whose ages and intentions may be disguised by fake profiles and pictures.

Yes, the risks are there, but are they pervasive and dangerous enough to yank my child off the Net, forbid her from exploring and install software to monitor her computer use?

While she's still a rather young 13, I believe she won't go off to meet a stranger in a strange place, or even that she has personal profiles posted on social sites. Plus, she doesn't hang out in chat rooms where trouble seems to gather. I think there's still time to teach her how to stay safe.

So far, we've talked about keeping personal information private, and she is aware of the potential dangers of openly interacting with strangers online. Frankly, at this point, she's not interested, though I'm not so dumb as to assume that won't change.

Other parents (perhaps with older and more adventurous kids) are more actively limiting and monitoring their kids' Internet activity. A 2006 survey conducted by Harris Interactive reports that 94 percent of parents surveyed have taken some steps to ensure their children's safe and responsible use of the Internet.

Reportedly, 88 percent talk to their kids about how to use the Internet, 82 percent monitor online use, 75 percent keep kids' computers in open family space, 74 percent set limits on their children's Internet use and 55 percent install software to limit or block online activities.

Interestingly, the same survey reports that 71 percent of parents also think schools have a major responsibility to keep kids safe on the Internet. Though parents want to take responsibility, the survey notes, they don't feel knowledgeable enough to keep their kids safe, and want schools to help.

So, dear parents, let's get more Net-savvy.

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Last time I wrote about Internet safety (in a column about MySpace.com), I received an e-mail with helpful suggestions from cybersafety expert Jayne Hitchcock, who has written a book on the topic: "Net Crimes and Misdemeanors: Outsmarting Web Spammers, Stalkers, and Con Artists," Second Edition (CyberAge Books, 2006, $25).

The book covers Internet dangers, including online scams, spyware, viruses, identity theft, harassment, phishing, cyberstalking and more. It suggests how to avoid these potential problems, as well as how to repair the damage if your kids, or you, fall victim.

The book begins by telling us that, yes, danger lurks on the Internet. Readers soon learn that Hitchcock was once a victim of cyberstalking. Consequently, she decided to find out more about Internet hazards, how to avoid them, how to recover when it's too late and finally, how to help others stay safe on the Net.

Chapter by chapter, Hitchcock explains the dangers, and then explains how we can protect ourselves and our computers with software shields, encryption, caution and good sense.

Finally, Hitchcock provides information on where to go for help. In an e-mail she points out two Web sites that can be particularly helpful for parents and others who want to learn more and become involved in advocating online safety for kids and adults:

• WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse) at www.haltabuse.org

• WHOA-KTD (the Kids/Teens Division) at www.haltabusektd.org

If you are a concerned parent, there are books (in addition to Hitchcock's) that can help you understand the hazards and risks your kids face when they use the Internet, and also help you find software to monitor and/or control your kids' use of the Internet. Or you can use the Internet yourself to search for help, using search terms such as "books to keep kids safe on the Internet," "software to keep kids safe on the Internet" and "how to keep kids safe on the Internet." In addition, an Oct. 7 Seattle Times story reported on efforts by Seattle-area schools to prevent online harassment (search seattletimes.com with the terms cyberspace harassment).

There is plenty of help and advice available online, in books and software programs. If you want to learn more, and do more to protect your kids, get started with any of these resources. I'm getting started too, and my first step is to do a more complete read of Hitchcock's clearly written and comprehensive book.

Write Linda Knapp at seattletimes.com">lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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