Techno Family

Home Surfing Poses Risks

by Diane Smiroldo

As computers become increasingly integrated into children’s lives, both in the classroom and in the home, more parents have begun to understand that the Internet is a virtual frontier, offering both opportunities and risks.
Young people are exploring all that the Internet has to offer — from “blogging” to school research, from chatting with friends to e-mail. That makes it even more important for parents to be watchful of kids’ computer use and Internet behavior.

What parents might not know is that while schools have taken many measures to reduce or eliminate risky Internet behavior, home Internet use continues to be the more precarious digital territory for children.

Riskier Behavior at Home
According to the results of a new nationwide survey by Harris Interactive, commissioned by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), while home computers are used more for fun, games and e-mailing friends, they also offer kids more opportunity to engage in risky Internet activities.

The study, which asked 1,556 children ages 8-18 about their computer habits, shows that kids seem to have a greater opportunity at home to engage in dicey Internet activities such as downloading illegal software, visiting unsafe sites and chatting with strangers, than they do at school, where computer use tends to entail more supervision and stricter school rules.

More than half of the kids polled in the study said their school’s computer usage rules are more stringent than home rules. At home, computers tend to function more as an entertainment center. So it becomes critical for parents to take every opportunity to remain observant and involved when it comes to kids’ online behaviors and activities.

Home Entertainment Center
While students of all ages may play games, check e-mail or surf the Web while online at school, they don’t tend to send e-mail, chat with friends, or download on school computers. But when they arrive home, the opportunities for downloading and other risky behaviors increase dramatically.

Although nearly two-thirds of the kids say they use their home computer to complete schoolwork, it is more frequently used for recreational activities and about a third of the youths polled reported downloading music and software on home computers in 2005.

Additionally, 35 percent of kids surveyed in all age groups said they are more likely to use a home computer rather than a school computer to chat with someone they don’t know, divulge personal information online (24 percent) or go to websites they probably shouldn’t visit (29 percent).

Parents’ Important Role
One reason that computer use is safer at school rather than at home is that children are much more likely to be online with other people at school, according to the study findings.

At home, however, they are commonly online alone, and with this feeling of autonomy may come the potential for them to experiment and take risks. That’s why discussing online activities is an important first step. Eighty-five percent of the kids polled report that their school has Internet use rules, while only 67 percent say that is also true at home.

The study suggests that parents might have more ability to get their kids to listen than previously thought. All age groups say that their parents know as much as they do about the Internet and that parents are more Internet-savvy than teachers. This clearly indicates an opportunity for parents to get more involved and make more of a difference in their kids’ online activities.

Steps to Curb Risky Use
There are a number of steps parents can take to curb risky Internet use by their children. Parents can:

• Talk with your kids about their Internet usage.

• Establish rules against talking to strangers, giving out personal information, visiting inappropriate sites, and downloading music and software illegally.

• Consider blocking measures. BSA research suggests that blocking software is successful in schools for limiting risky Internet use, so parents might want to consider implementing such measures at home.

At parents can tap into free resources that will help them talk with young people about ethical and legal computer behavior. The site includes a selection of engaging, age-appropriate activities for children in grades 3-8 that make it fun to learn more about being good cyber citizens.
Parents can make the home environment one in which kids are less likely to engage in risky behavior.

Diane Smiroldo is Vice President for Public Affairs of the Business Software Alliance, which represents the commercial software industry and its hardware partners. and