Fact Sheet 21a:
Children's Safety on the Internet

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Copyright © 1998 - 2014
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Posted June 1998
Revised February 2014

  1. Introduction
  2. Risks and Steps Parents Can Take to Limit Them
  3. Online Safety Resources
  4. Filtering Harmful Material
    • What kind of filters are available?
    • Are filtering programs effective?
    • What is the debate about filtering software?
    • How can I learn more about the debate over filtering?
  5. Alternatives to Installing Blocking Software
    • Built-in parental controls
    • Child-friendly filtering services and web sites
    • Government strictures against offensive commercial e-mail
    • Web seals
  6. Online Safety for Chat, Instant Messaging, Social Networking, and Blogging
    • What are the privacy and safety concerns for children regarding "chat," instant-messaging services, and social networking web sites?
    • What can parents do to ensure safe social networking?
    • What can I do if my child is harassed while online, or is subject to inappropriate online behavior?
  7. Directory of Organizations

Note: No endorsements are implied for any commercial products named in this guide.

1.  Introduction

Whether it's called the Internet, the net, the web, or cyberspace, people all over the world — including children — now exchange e-mail and instant messages (IM).They participate in chat rooms, post and read messages in social networking sites, and write, read, and interact with blogs. They may also join in other online activities, including games.

Most children are very comfortable using computers and mobile devices and are fascinated by the information and images that can be explored at the click of a mouse. What's more, children increasingly do not need to be in the company of a responsible adult in order to use a computer. School and home are no longer the only places where children can go online. They can also connect at a friend’s house, a library, or a café. In addition, technology is rapidly increasing the ways to access the web.  Smartphones and other hand-held devices allow Internet connections. Many game consoles can be linked to the Internet and used for chatting or other online activities.

While the Internet offers children and youth tremendous opportunities, the virtual world, like the real one, has aspects that can be harmful to them. It's important for parents to keep in mind that anyone can publish on the Internet. No governing body and no censors exist.

Arguably, the Internet poses a much greater risk of damage to children than do television, movies, or music. That's because the major media are at least identifiable and subject to some pressure and legislation.

Even though many companies that provide Internet access seek to provide subscribers with safe experiences, it's not possible to monitor everyone. And the online world, like the rest of society, includes some people who may be hateful, obnoxious, or even exploitative. As a result, children can be targets of crime and harassment on the web, and thus need parental supervision and common-sense advice.

The words "harmful" and "objectionable" can be interpreted in many ways. In this guide, we use these terms to deal with pornography, profanity, hate speech, and related threats.

A companion guide, Children's Privacy on the Internet (www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs21-children.htm), describes advertising messages and images that are highly manipulative of children.  Both guides provide resources for parents to maximize the benefits of cyberspace for children and minimize the dangers.

2. Risks and Steps Parents Can Take to Limit Them

While it's almost impossible to shield children from all objectionable material, parents can take steps to limit inappropriate exposure and minimize the chances of children being victimized.

For a wealth of information on the pros and cons of Internet use by children of all ages, visit NetSmartz at www.netsmartz411.org. It is associated with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (www.missingkids.com).

Some chat areas and web sites have material that is hateful, violent, or pornographic. It's possible for children to stumble across these sites accidentally or by specifically searching for them. Teenagers are particularly at risk because they often go online unsupervised and are more likely than younger children to participate in online discussions about companionship, relationships, and sexual activity.

Among the kinds of risks children face on the Internet:

  • Exposure to material that is sexual, hateful or violent, or that encourages dangerous or illegal activity.
  • Physical molestation as a result of a youngster providing information or arranging a face-to-face meeting.
  • Harassment and bullying by receiving messages that are belligerent or demeaning.
  • Downloading a file that contains a computer-damaging virus or allows a hacker to gain access to the computer, potentially jeopardizing the family’s privacy and safety.

To limit such risks, there's no substitute for parental involvement and supervision. Open communication about your child’s online activities is vital. Technology, while not a panacea, can also provide some help. 

General steps you can take:

  1. Monitor your child's computer use. Keep track of any files your children download to the computer. Consider sharing an e-mail account so you can oversee their mail, and consider joining them when they are in private chat areas.

  2. Assist, don't blame. If your child tells you about an upsetting message, person, or web site, help him or her avoid problems in the future. Blaming the child will discourage him or her from confiding in you the next time a problem is encountered. Also, warn them not to respond to threatening, suggestive, or demeaning messages.
  3. Scrutinize your credit-card bills. Sexually explicit sites often require
    credit-card information for access.
  4. Check out filters. Spam filters limit unsolicited e-mail, including mail promoting sexually explicit material. Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) include filters as part of their service. If yours does not, you can buy software to restrict the type of mail that gets through. Similarly, you can also filter what a child can see on the web.

    Check with your ISP to see if it offers age-appropriate parental controls. If not, consider buying software that blocks chat areas and web sites believed to be inappropriate for children. Most of these programs can be configured by you to filter out sites containing objectionable material. Some can also be set up to prevent children from revealing information about themselves, such as address or phone numbers.

    You can find filtering programs listed at www.kids.getnetwise.org/tools/ . The latest versions of Microsoft Windows have parental-control tools built in. More details on technological aids are in Sections 3 and 4.     

  5. Explore ratings systems. Internet browsers can be set up to only allow children to visit sites that are rated at the level that parents specify. However, this method relies on we site operators to accurately label the nature of their material. Another problem is that many appropriate web sites haven’t submitted their web sites for a rating and, thus, will be blocked.
  6. Establish family rules. Make sure children understand that they should never give out identifying information or passwords in a public message. It's important they understand that people online may not be who they seem. Never allow a child to set up a face-to-face meeting with someone they "meet" on the Internet without parental permission. If such a meeting is arranged, make sure the first one occurs in a public place with you in attendance. Set reasonable usage rules, such as time limits. Monitor your children’s compliance with these rules. Consider keeping the computer in a family room rather than in the child’s bedroom.

  7. Read privacy policies for the Websites your child visits, and pay special attention to how and whether your child’s information is used for commercial purposes. A January 2009 survey conducted by Consumer Privacy Solutions concluded that only 31% of parents read privacy notices posted on their child’s favorite Websites. In addition, 56% of parents surveyed did not know whether their child’s online activity was tracked. To read the full survey results, see www.consumerprivacyawareness.org/online-privacy-survey/

But understand that no plan or program is perfect. For instance, even if software does effectively block what you believe your children shouldn't see, it may not block what the child may say, such as giving out an address or agreeing to meet with a stranger. There’s no substitute for parental involvement, so the best approach is to use a combination of technology and informed supervision.  

3. Online Safety Resources

Numerous agencies and organizations provide brochures and other resources about Internet safety. Most offer materials in both online and in paper form. To order paper copies, see the postal addresses and phone numbers in Section 7 at the end of this guide.

  • The GetNetWise web site is a comprehensive resource for parents, sponsored by Internet industry companies and public-interest organizations, www.getnetwise.org. It also offers a model "contract" you can develop with your child to govern Internet use.
  • NetSmartz411, begun in 2007, is an online service by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that answers parents' or guardians' questions about Internet safety. It's an extension of the NetSmartz Workshop, an interactive, educational resource that teaches children how to stay safe on the Internet. www.netsmartz411.org   
  • ConnectSafely is a resource for parents, teens, and experts to discuss safe socializing on the web and mobile devices, found at www.connectsafely.org.
  • The WiredSafety site www.wiredsafety.org offers a variety of resources for parents, children, and law enforcement.

4. Filtering Harmful Material

Filtering software is the technology that most parents use to protect children at home. As a result of federal law, such software also is used in many libraries and public schools.

A content filter consists of one or more pieces of software that work together to prevent users from viewing certain material found on the Internet. It generally involves (1) filtering software that examines the material the user is seeking and (2) some system of ratings or value judgments that is used to categorize web sites.

What kind of filters are available?

A number of products are available which, when installed on the home computer, block access to many web sites containing objectionable material, such as pornography, obscenity, gratuitous violence, and hate speech. Some products also prevent access to the computer during specified hours of the day, provide parents a log of the web sites visited by their children, and prevent access to such web services as chat rooms.

The major search engines such as Google www.google.com can direct you to many "parental-control software" programs. As mentioned, the web site GetNetWise lists filtering products.  http://kids.getnetwise.org/tools/

You may wish to look for software that does some or all of the following:

  • Blocks outgoing transmission of personal information such as name, address, phone number.
  • Limits access by time of day and total amount of connect time.
  • Clearly states its criteria for blocking sites, and allows parents to read a list of blocked sites.
  • Has user-definable options, allowing customization of blocked sites.
  • Allows users to turn software on and off with password control.
  • Is updated frequently.
  • Blocks image files (JPEG, GIF) and binary downloads, likely to contain photos and graphic images.
  • Filters offensive language.
  • Blocks Internet Relay Chats (IRCs) and Usenet Newsgroups.

Are filtering programs effective?

Most filtering programs either overblock or underblock. Thus, it becomes necessary to weigh how much protection you want versus how much interference you can tolerate into bona fide research. Filtering programs often may block access to sites with legitimate non-obscene speech. For example, the word "breast" might be found not only on adult-only sites but also in those containing poultry recipes or belonging to cancer-support groups.

What is the debate about filtering software?

There's an ongoing national debate revolving around filtering and the First Amendment. While seen by some as a powerful tool for protecting children, software filters are viewed by others as "censor ware."

Congress and the courts have skirmished on the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) as well as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

COPA, which should not be confused with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), aimed to stop Internet access to material vaguely characterized as harmful to minors. On January 21, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court struck the death blow to COPA when it declined to hear lower court challenges that ruled COPA unconstitutional. For a discussion of COPA, visit the Web site of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/01/copa .

CIPA, on the other hand, requires schools and libraries to install filters on computers used by minors and adults or lose federal funds. For more on the Children's Internet Protection Act, see the Federal Communications Web site. www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cipa.html

To learn more about COPPA, see PRC Fact Sheet 21, Children’s Online Privacy: A Resource Guide for Parents, www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs21-children.htm.

Critics of filtering are concerned about censorship of political, social and business viewpoints by the software developers. In addition, some critics believe young people should have rights to privacy, especially those in their mid- to late-teens.

How can I learn more about the debate over filtering?

Visit these web sites for additional discussion of the issues:

  • American Civil Liberties Union. Read the ACLU’s seminal white paper, "Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?", which discusses the potential for censorship in the use of filtering software. www.aclu.org/privacy/speech/15145pub20020317.html
  • Internet Free Expression Alliance, www.ifea.net. Coalition of civil liberties and public interest organizations opposed to government enforcement of ratings or filtering of online content.

5. Alternatives to Installing Blocking Software

Parents have several alternatives to the blocking products described above.

Built-in parental controls. The latest versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system comes with built-in features that allow you to control which programs a child runs and to specify which web sites he or she can visit.

The key to both is making sure the computer used by the child has multiple accounts, or logins. One, for the parent, should be set up as an "administrator" account that allows that person to change various settings. Other, more restricted accounts, can be set up for each child who uses the computer.

Child-friendly filtering services and web sites. Some child-friendly ISPs offer programs that strive to offer a safe environment for children.

Free online filtering software, developed by the nonprofit Website Rating & Advisory Council is downloadable at www.parentalcontrolbar.org. WRAAC has labeled more than 100,000 of the most popular web sites on the Internet. When in "Child-Mode," the ParentalControlBar blocks web sites based on criteria set by the parent, while in "Parent Mode," the adult has unrestricted access to the Internet.

Be aware that filtering services are subject to the same biases as the blocking software programs discussed above. Take the time to carefully read about the service's criteria for filtering.


Government strictures against offensive commercial e-mail. The CAN-SPAM Act, effective in 2004, contains provisions which may help parents concerned by the amount of inappropriate e-mail their children receive. The law is primarily aimed at eliminating deceptive unsolicited commercial e-mail, but also addresses the problem of sexually-oriented, unsolicited e-mail. 

The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) regulations implementing the Act require any spam that contains sexually oriented material to include the warning “SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT:” in the subject line. 

Further, the sexually oriented e-mail must contain an opening page with a clear and conspicuous option to not receive any more e-mail from the sender and a legitimate physical address of the sender. The opener page, called a "virtual brown wrapper" by some, cannot contain any graphic material, but instead may contain a link to the sexually oriented material.

Violation of these rules can be reported to the FTC or to your state's Attorney General.  Violations of the Act will result in fines under Title 18, imprisonment of no more than five years, or both.

Visit the Spam Laws web site for more information (no endorsements are implied), www.spamlaws.com/federal/index.shtml.

Web seals. Another approach is to seek web sites that have a web seal of approval, such as TRUSTe, www.truste.org. Web sites that receive the TRUSTe Children’s Privacy Seal must meet certain requirements. www.truste.org/businesses/childrens_privacy_seal.php

  • The site must be appropriate for children under 13.
  • The privacy policy must explain what the web site does with personal information.
  • The site must offer the privacy principles of notice, choice, access, and security.

6. Online Safety for Chat, Instant Messages, Social Networking, and Blogging

What are the privacy and safety concerns for children regarding "chat," instant messaging services, and social-networking web sites?

Chat rooms. Chat rooms are enormously popular with children. They enable several individuals to interact with one another in real-time by typing messages onto their keyboards. The commercial online services such as AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, offer numerous chat rooms that cater to specific interests. Chat is also provided via Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. For more information, visit www.irchelp.org.

Of course, the same potential problems that occur elsewhere on the web - such as profanity, harassment, divulging of personal information - can occur on social networking sites.

Children can adopt several tactics for maximizing their privacy and safety in chat rooms.

  • Participate only in monitored chat rooms.
  • Choose a screen name that is used only for chatting and does not contain personal identification.
  • Avoid names that attract inappropriate contact such as "sexyteen."
  • Do not provide traceable personal information in the profile.
  • Never give out personal information such as name, address, phone number, and school name.

Several filtering software programs provide features that claim to prevent children from transmitting their name and other personal information. However, there is no foolproof way, other than blocking Internet chat room access entirely, to prevent a child from communicating a name and address in a chat room. That's because of the many ways such words and numbers can be spelled. A period can be inserted into a name, and numbers can be spelled out.

Instant messages. A popular form of one-to-one chat is provided by instant messaging (IM) services. Faster than e-mail and cheaper than the telephone, they are used to communicate in real time with friends and family. Many of the same strategies for safe chatting apply to instant messaging:

  • Do not put identifying information in the profile.
  • Don’t send personal identifying information via messages.
  • Click on the option that requires others to get your permission before they can add you to their contact list.
  • If participants use the instant message service to transfer files such as music and photos, take precautions to avoid viruses and worms.

Social networking and blogging. Socia networking services have exploded in popularity. In part, these web sites are a response to the concerns over too much anonymity in chat rooms. Although the web sites vary slightly -- MySpace targets music fans, for instance, and Facebook is designed for students -- all restrict communication to people within a network.

Social networking services allow users to create profiles, post pictures, and write blogs, among other things. Users can then invite friends into their network. The network can be nominally restricted by school, invitation, or degree of friendship.

Young adults and children can easily be lulled into a false sense of security and let down their guard about the type of information they post.

While these networks may be preferable to the anonymity of chat rooms and Instant Messages, parents still need to be cautious. The unprecedented amount of personal information available on social networking and blogging sites makes them a perfect spot for people who would prey on youngsters. This can happen physically by luring them into a meeting in person, or by exposing them to inappropriate content, cyberbullying, or committing identity theft

Cyberbullying involves sending or posting harmful or cruel text or images, which may include threats. Parents should understand that the Internet provides a forum for variations of the same identity-formation and social-status games played out in every junior high and high school across the nation.

For a discussion of cyberbullying, see Net Family News at  www.netfamilynews.org/resourcescyberbullying.htm.

What can parents do to ensure safe social networking?

The same kind of precautions as recommended above apply also to use of social networking sites. For example, discuss the dangers with your child, use filtering features when available, enter into a safe-computing contract with your child, and monitor what they do and say on the Internet. See www.connectsafely.org .   

Although direct communication may be blocked to strangers, some of these sites allow anyone to view user profiles. There have been reports of school expulsions because of threats posted on these sites, dorm privileges revoked after pictures of underage drinking were posted, and many cases of embarrassed parents and children.

Parents should ask their children if they have a profile posted online or if they write or read blogs. In addition to reminding children of Internet safety tips, parents should be aware of which social network sites their children visit. Many of these web sites have access-control options that can be turned on. It is a good idea to not only request that your child limit who can see the profile, but also to request that your child let you view it occasionally.

What can I do if my child is harassed while online, or is subject to inappropriate online behavior?

Instruct your child to tell you about any messages that make them feel uncomfortable or scared. Report harassment to the chat room monitor and the ISP. Most services provide a special e-mail address to report problems.

If your child receives physical threats or if you suspect that a pedophile is contacting children, contact:

  • The local police department.
  • The nearest field office of the FBI. Information about the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Program is found at www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/cac/crimesmain.htm.
  • The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678 or its online Cyber Tip Line at www.cybertipline.org

7.  Directory of Organizations

  • American Civil Liberties Union. 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004. DC office: 1400 20th St., NW, Suite 119, Washington, DC 20036. Phone: (202) 457-0800. Web: www.aclu.org
  • American Library Association. 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, IL 60611. Phone: (312) 944-6780 and (800) 545-2433.  Web: www.ala.org
  • Crimes Against Children Research Center, 126 Horton Social Science Center, 20 College Road, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824 Phone (603) 862-1888 Web: www.unh.edu/ccrc/
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation. 454 Shotwell St., San Francisco, CA 94110. Phone: (415) 436-9333. Web: www.eff.org
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center. 1718 Connecticut Ave. NW Suite 200, Washington, DC 20009. Phone: (202) 483-1140. Web: www.epic.org
  • Family Online Safety Institute , 815 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 220 Washington, DC 20006, Phone (202) 572 6252 Web: www.fosi.org/cms/
  • Family Research Library, 126 Horton Social Science Center , University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824, Phone (603) 862-1888 Web: http://unhinfo.unh.edu/frl/
  • Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Protection Bureau. 600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20580. Phone: (877) 382-4357 or (877) FTC-HELP. Web: www.ftc.gov
  • I-SAFE, Inc., 5900 Pasteur Court, Suite #100, Carlsbad, CA 92008, Phone: 760.603.7911 Web: www.isafe.org/
  • Internet Education Foundation and GetNetWise, 1634 Eye Street NW, Washington, DC 20009, Web: www.GetNetWise.org

  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 699 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Phone: (703) 274-3900. Hotline: (800) 843-5678. Web: www.missingkids.org
  • TRUSTe. 685 Market Street, Suite 270, San Francisco, CA 94105. Phone: (415) 618-3400. Web: www.truste.org
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