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How to Keep Kids Safe from Online Pornography, X-Rated Content

With nearly a billion websites out there to browse and land on, it’s no surprise that there are quite a few dedicated to dubious, questionable and even unsavory agendas. And – as we note in our bestselling book Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide – even with parental controls and browser filters, it’s almost inevitable that the curious child will either deliberately or inadvertently stumble upon something that your family will find upsetting.

Just one example: A survey from Netsmartz.org showed that approximately one-third (34%) of children ages 10 to 17 were exposed to unwanted sexual material on the Internet in a one-year period of time. Sadly, in some cases, encountering questionable or negative material is as simple as incorrectly inputting a Web address by one letter, which can accidentally send kids surfing off to a website that’s inappropriate for their viewing.

But if you should stumble across evidence that your child has been viewing negative or controversial material, and that these sites were accessed deliberately, you need to be prepared to handle the situation. Knowing that such scenarios often can and will occur, start by establishing and enforcing ground rules for appropriate content, and make sure all members of the household are aware of and agree to them. All should also know the punishments involved for violating these rules, and circumstances under which they’ll be revoked. Again, being proactive pays, including teaching kids what is and isn’t acceptable to view online, and why they shouldn’t believe everything that they view or read.

Even educating them to keep in mind a simple litmus test such as asking themselves “would I be comfortable showing and explaining this to my grandmother” may be enough to help kids understand what’s appropriate and what’s not from an early age. 

We provide the following list of controversial content types which potentially await even the unsuspecting Internet surfer not to frighten or sensationalize, but rather to inform parents of just a few of the potential hazards that children may encounter:

Pornography: Wherever a form of media exists, so too does pornography. However, some experts argue that threats are overrated. To give just one perspective, a September 2011 Forbes article interviewed OgiOgas, a neuroscientist who compiled data on the subject for his book “A Billion Wicked Thoughts.” According to his research, in 2010, out of the million most trafficked websites in the world, 42,337 were sex-related sites, or only about 4%. Ogas also points out that while companies like Cybersitter proclaim that they block 2.5 million adult sites, he thinks those numbers are exaggerated. But at the same time, he also found that 13% of all Web searches were for erotic content – and any child who knows where to look can gain access to pornography via computer or mobile device in a matter of seconds. In short, it’s not a topic parents can easily afford to dismiss.

Child Pornography: A ways back, the Internet Watch Foundation found more than 13,000 sites that contained illegal child pornography. Often, featured victims are 10 years old or younger and nearly two-thirds involve rape and sexual torture – frightening stats, indeed.

Hate Groups and Racism: According to Canada’s Media Awareness Network, there are directories that list more than 170 pages of hate content that include websites, blogs, games, and more, including racist-friendly web-hosting services. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Digital Terrorism and Hate Project tracks more than 14,000 potentially hateful websites, blogs, social networking pages and video channels in total.

Eating Disorders: Though potentially not as widespread as racist or pornographic sites, sites that go by the names “pro-ana,”“pro-mia” and “thinspo” glamorize and promote health issues such as anorexia and bulimia. The first study examining the extent of the problem in 2010 found 180 different sites glorifying these eating disorders.

Historical Revisionism: These sites contest the mainstream view of historical events that actually happened. Whether it’s promoting notions that our government was behind the 9/11 attacks, or that the Holocaust never happened, these sites attempt to use alternate facts, videos and interactive graphics to lay out their case. 

Tips:

  • Make sure that your family has a policy about checking Web browser history and not deleting it in place that everyone understands. It’s important for you to be able to check this history to keep an eye out for questionable online activity, or encounters with content that may contain viruses, spyware or other malware. It’s vital that you have a firm understanding of how to check your browser’s history and cookies. The Netsmartz website offers instructions on how to do so and other ways to protect your family. If you do find that your browser history is empty, it means that privacy settings are on, or your child is deleting it manually, which, in the latter case, is a good reason to engage them to ask why this activity is occurring. Note that in addition to manually checking browsing history, you can also use monitoring programs such as ESET, Webroot, Lookout, Web Watcher or Net Nanny to proactively restrict access to certain websites.
  • There are also browser programs that examine websites to create a pre-approved “whitelist” of sites that an expert has deemed acceptable for young web users. Programs like MyKidsBrowser and Maxthon are designed with kids in mind, and restrict access to only safe sites.
  • For mobile phones, MOBICIP filters Web browsing based on a setting of either high school, middle school or elementary school level. It categorizes all websites in a database to make sure they’re appropriate.
  • Make sure you’re taking advantage of your computer’s free parental controls and protection options.
  • Make sure your kids know what to do when they accidentally come across a questionable site: Close the browser window and let a grown-up know. Realize that mistakes, unexpected encounters and poor choices of judgment can and will occur, and use them as teachable moments.

For more information about how to navigate technology with your kids, check out the other sections in our Modern Parenting online series, an important look at what families need to know in our hyper-connected era:

And to learn more about these, topics, also be sure to see Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web, and Online Safety Guide.

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