Internet Safety for Your Tech-Savvy Third-Grader

Porn, Predators and Put-downs

It must be an over-reaction: "Your children are in danger!" is good for ratings. Rumors and bad statistics have never been easier to find. My child tells me when other kids are mean. We've talked about stranger danger. My 8-year-old would never look at porn ...

For all the truth in these statements, the dangers are real. Almost certainly your 8-year-old isn't Googling "free porn," but the sheer volume of Web-based pornography makes intent almost an afterthought. Research shows that 70 percent of underage Internet users have viewed pornographic material online by accident -- and that most of these instances happen on the home computer [source: InternetSafety101]. Simply misspelling a URL or clicking on a pop-up can result in exposure, and not just to nudity but also to sexual violence, fetish material and child exploitation.

Less common but more terrifying, the Internet, with its anonymity and ease of access, offers sexual predators a safe, effective place to conduct operations. In third grade, as online socializing becomes increasingly central to peer-group communications, your child becomes an easier target. Anyone can gather personal information from public profiles, chat rooms and blogs and set up a fake identity to establish seemingly innocuous contact with a child. E-mail, instant message and chat rooms are all modes of potentially dangerous contact.

That same reach and anonymity emboldens other predators, too: School bullies can harass their classmates with almost no fear of consequences, and the 24/7 nature of the Web leaves their victims without an after-school reprieve. (See Is cyberbullying getting out of control?)

Scary? Yes. But it's not necessary (or wise) to keep your 8-year-old out of cyberspace. Ultimately, keeping your child safe on the Internet calls for the same tools you've been using all along to teach smart, responsible behavior everywhere else: Awareness, involvement, open communication and a willingness to be the bad guy.