Sunday, March 09, 2008

FTC pamphlet: guide for parent(s) on Internet safety

The Federal Trade Commission does have a leaflet “FTC Facts for Consumers: Social Networking Sites: A Parent’s Guide.”

Notice, first, that the work “parent” is singular. Anyway, the pamphlet does give some recommendations that serve response.

First, they are right, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) does regulate the collection of information about minors, and this has not been controversial.

The FTC recommends keeping the family computer (or at least any computer with kids’ access) in an open area. That sounds like the safest thing to do. However, the Internet can be a valuable aid to school work when used properly. (That says a lot: there are other issues that concern teachers, such as plagiarism). If a student is mature enough and in advanced courses in high school, it seems like it ought be all right to let him or her have more control of access. I’m reminded of a cereal commercial where a middle school kid is looking up Shakespeare on a computer on a family kitchen table and the kid says to his father, “You had it easy. I had to write a report.” And he had six weeks to do it. The father chuckles.

A more serious concern is the possibility of kids giving out personal information. The most obvious danger is on social networking profiles. Personal information could endanger other family members, too. Nevertheless, the risk is reduced if parents practice good home and auto security, and watch their own credit and financial affairs properly. The practical reality is that many parents don’t do this, and that many companies and financial institutions have been careless about verifying identities of people they make loans to. The FTC warns that kids can even give away personal information with unwisely constructed screen names.

Social networking sites allow profiles to be made private, and generally require that for kids under 16; teens should certain start out with whitelisted profiles and a known audience, although even that sometimes leads to unwanted disclosure of private information.

Parents should definitely monitor the postings of kids, at least until they are mature enough. They should also monitor email. It takes a certain amount of judgment to learn to recognize spam, scams, and illegitimate communications. Even some parents do not know how to recognize these the way more experiences users do.

Of course, they should also regulate their kids’ use of chat rooms. We all know what some of the dangers are, given the recent sensational NBC Dateline series with Chris Hansen. (I won’t describe the details here.) There seems to be little legitimate reason for kids to own webcams and keep them near family computers, unless the family or kids are involved in making legitimate videos. (Yes, the Hotz family made appropriate use of home-generated video when the teen brothers made some informative films about how to unlock certain kinds of cell phones; look at this, Aug. 26.

Larger ISP’s offer kids’ accounts, with the ability of parents to regulate what sites their kids can visit, at different ages and levels of intellectual and social maturity.

A whole generation that has become accustomed to the potential for “instant fame” on the Internet, and this seems particularly attractive to teenagers and college students. Our culture has allowed and encouraged this, without requiring the training or maturity that normally goes with publication of things – understanding of copyright, trademark, libel, privacy invasion, and now the amorphous concepts of “implicit content” and “reputation defense.”

The pamphlet names a number of organizations and websites.:

FTC’s own.

Internet Keep Safe Coalition


National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

National Crime Prevention Council

Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (blog).

I have some discussions of "reputation defense" on other blogs. A major discussion occurs here on the January 28, 2008 entry.


Nancy Willard said...

The best organization on the FTC form is i-SAFE I am a teacher responsible for implementing internet safety for my school and therefore have reviewed all of the programs. The most comprehenasive and FAIR look at internet safety is i-SAFE. It also helps that it is FREE for schools to use.

Bill Boushka said...

I appreciate getting a comment from a teacher. One point that technology, English and social studies teachers should work on is the concept of "online reputation" (along with "context" or "implicit content"). It is definitely a growing concern and hard to get a grip on. School districts should become proactive in presenting this concept, at least in high school.

Jennifer Heisler @ McGruff SafeGuard said...

I too support monitoring your children's activities on the internet, and not just for kids who are already in trouble. You should do it on a proactive basis so that if something does start to go wrong you can address it immediately. I think lots of children who are online posting information are not capable of thinking ahead and weighing the potential consequences. I'm helping parents navigate the world of online parenting at

shady said...

It boils down to knowledge. Parents just have to know. It's not the same as knowing who's house your teen is going to in town... it's knowing who in the WORLD they are talking to and what websites they are visiting. The Internet is a doorway to a much larger world - in essence, it nullifies small town America. Now anyone, anywhere can communicate -- young Internet users don't understand that. So, while freedoms can and should be granted and surfing the net for knowledge should be encouraged, guidelines need to be set and parents need to monitor (even if just occasionally) activity. I recommend monitoring software called PC Pandora -- but there are many different types and names out there. Investigate them all and invest in one. Knowledge is power. It takes a lot of power to be a 21st century parent.

Monica said...

As a mother of 2 boys with unsupervised internet access during 3-6 p.m. (while I am still at work) I struggled with the thought of getting a monitoring software and invading their privacy. After watching the news and all the horrendous stories about inproper internet use and its consequences, I finally decided that their safety far overweighed their right to privacy and I bought a software called SendMeScreens (
which was surprisingly very easy to install. The program sends me screen shots of the boy's online activities to my gmail account so I can keep tabs on what they are doing while I am at work. It has really given me peace of mind and the boys don't even know its there. As parents it's our responsibility to ensure our kids' safety.