By Christina Tynan-Wood
An Internet-connected computer is perhaps the greatest library-and-teacher combo ever invented. It can open doors to learning that were simply unavailable 20 years ago. It's also a pain for parents: Kids can slip into the World Wide Web’s seamy underbelly or get so engrossed that they forget there is a world beyond the screen. But don’t hold learning at bay because of such hassles and hazards.
You would teach your kid to cross the street to get to the library, right? Help him navigate the virtual world, and he will quickly become smarter than you can ever hope to be. First step: Explain the dangers and how to avoid them — and keep explaining them as they change. Next install parental controls just as you would put training wheels on a bike (consider Net Nanny or the Norton Online Family). Then dole out Internet time and access as your kid grows and becomes more competent.
A younger child should perhaps stop at an hour a day, while a teen could spend that much time on homework alone, let alone socializing and entertainment. A first grader might need to be shielded from 90% of what’s online, while an older teen needs only thin protection to keep from stumbling into the worst parts of the Web. The right parental controls can help you enforce your guidelines, limit abuse, and filter out nastiness while your kid learns to negotiate the world he's growing up in.
The pros: A vast, instant, unparalleled-in-the-history-of-humanity tool for learning, communication, and entertainment.
The cons: A vast, instant, unparalleled-in-the-history-of humanity on-ramp to Smutville. Even the innocent stuff is potentially addictive.
The lowdown: You can’t avoid the Internet (and why would you want to?). But you can make it safer for kids by offering instruction and installing training wheels till they can negotiate it on their own.
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