How safe are our children when they are surfing the Internet? There is no denying the incredible educational advantages the Internet offers and how essential mastering it is to future success in the professional world, but there are also dangers waiting for the innocent and unsuspecting. For the many computerless African-Americans households on the wrong side of the "digital divide," it is more important for these parents to impress the upon their children these dangers since they'll be learning outside the home.
For example, the Internet search engine About.com has an excellent selection of links to web sites highlighting African-American culture, education resources and self-help advice that is suitable for both adults and children. At the side of the screen, however, is a "shopcenter" offering passage to an on-line casino, a place to buy a "sexy fragrance" and several contests boasting prizes of up to $25,000 that will most likely add a child's e-mail address to an advertiser's mailing list. Just two clicks from the shopcenter's "love, sex, movies" icon, one can find articles on sexual "exercise machines so new and intriguing you can't mention them in polite company" and "caring for the sexual self." Starting off with good intentions at this site, untended children could end up learning a lot that they shouldn't.
In addition to inappropriate Internet content being within a child's reach, there's also the danger of who may be trying to reach out to them. The news is full of stories about sexual predators using online "chat rooms" to arrange real life meetings with unsuspecting kids. And there are always scam artists trying to make a quick buck.
What to do? CNET, one of the foremost authorities on computer technology, says the Internet "is about as safe as a dark alley. Maybe there are bad guys lurking in the shadows; maybe there aren't. But you aren't defenseless." There are several things parents can do to protect their children.
Software like NetNanny and SurfWatch and search engines like Yahooligans! (www.yahooligans.com) and Super Snooper (www.supersnooper.com) are specifically designed to filter out inappropriate content or make it less likely for it to be found. Groups like Safekids.com have also helped create rules to surf by. Safekids.com's "Kids' Rules for Online Safety" includes very commonsense rules like "I will not give out personal information," "I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable" and "I will never agree to get together with someone I 'meet' online without first checking with my parents."
Parents need to take a proactive role in their child's exploration on the Internet. Rules are fine, but they need parental enforcement to make them work. When parents are not around, a child's wandering can go unchecked and unchallenged. It's the duty of parents to make sure they know what their children are logging onto what why some places are off-limits.
We cannot deny our children the Internet. It has a great deal of resources specifically designed to help the development of black children. It would be a shame for them to miss out on the opportunity to use them. One site in particular is "Black History: Exploring African-American Issues on the Web," created by Pacific Bell (www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/BHM/AfroAm.html). It is a springboard to six sites designed by the company as a resource for schools and a step toward bringing teleconferencing technology into the classrooms via computers. It is a wealth of historical information ready and waiting for students hungry for knowledge of their ancestors.
Another great resource is the Cyber-Youth Network (www.cyber-youth.net). CYN president and CEO Terry Lee says, "There is an incredible amount of information about the African-American community on the Internet, but students, teachers and parents need to learn how and where to access them." CYN is trying to fill that void, and providing children with the means of keeping themselves safe in the process.
CYN's site offers a school zone offering educational resources, a tech zone to provide both lost cost options for computer ownership and advice on the best equipment and software and plenty of career advice. CYN's mentor zone allows users to interact with professionals in the minority community to get a leg up in the job market. Drawing from some of the same guidelines as Safekids.com, CYN also suggests users go by nicknames, so that their anonymity is protected.
One cannot function in the modern workplace without computer training. It is our duty to our children to make sure they get that training. Together, we can close the digital divide. But we also must honor our commitment to keep them safe. We need to hold their hands as they take their first steps into the digital world, and shouldn't hesitate to use the tools out there designed to help us protect our own.
We need to stay informed when it comes to cyberspace, so let's
stay on top of it!
(Tara Wall is a member of the National Advisory Council of
Project 21 and a former education reporter. She currently works
for Michigan governor John Engler.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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