Everybody's different, and so is every family. It's not my place to say what's best for you or your kids, but if you want some guidance about keeping your kids safe online, permit me to offer a few suggestions here. Then follow your own judgment.
This one's so obvious, and yet so difficult. As a parent, I know that it simply isn't practical to supervise our kids every second of the day. And if you're a tired parent of a preteen, the idea of the kid going off to his room for an hour to surf the Net is appealing.
You must make your own choice about when to cut the cord, based not on what's convenient but on your kid. Some kids are mature enough to surf responsibly at seven, but others can't be trusted at 17. Only you know your kids well enough to decide.
If you're not sure whether your kid is ready to go solo but you don't have time to supervise, keep him offline until either you are sure that he's ready or you have the time. The Internet has lots to offer a kid, but your kid can live without it until the time is right for both of you.
Don't Defeat Passwords
Your Internet connection, email account, and a few other activities require you to enter a username and password to prevent unauthorized access. Some software, particularly Internet connection software, enables you to enter the password in a dialog box once so that you never have to type it again. That's a convenient feature, but it enables anyone who can flip a switch to get online using your computer.
My advice is that you leave your computer configured so that a password is required for both connecting to the Internet and retrieving email. Never tell your kids the passwords, and never log on or retrieve email in their sight.
This will ensure that you always know when your kids are online, and that they cannot receive email from anyone without your knowledge.
Be Extra Careful with Broadband
If you use a broadband Internet connection, your connection can be always online, always ready to go. This condition makes it awfully easy for a child to sit down at your computer and go where he or she maybe shouldn't.
Be sure you do not check any "remember password" boxes when setting up and using your broadband connection. This will help ensure that no one uses the Internet without your permission and supervision.
It's a shame to recommend resisting chat because there's plenty of good clean fun to be had in chat rooms. It must be said: Chat rooms are the most dangerous places on the Internet. This is not because of all the sex-related chat rooms, although it's related to those.
On the Web, the worst thing that can happen to a kid is that he or she will be exposed to ideas ”words and pictures ”that you don't approve of. In chat, your kids can easily meet up with people who may hurt them. People are much more dangerous than ideas.
It works like this: A pedophile or some other dangerous character ”often posing as a kid ”frequents chat rooms where kids hang out and establishes friendships, especially with lonely kids who are easy prey. As the friendship grows, the creep manipulates the kid into dropping the anonymous chat nicknames and exchanging email addresses for private correspondence. Eventually, a private, face-to-face meeting is arranged.
There already have been numerous cases of kids abused this way. And the initial contact is almost always made in a chat room.
Obviously, I recommend never allowing a child to use chat unsupervised, even if that child is trusted to surf the Web unsupervised. Even supervised chatting is risky ”by teaching a child how to chat, you increase the chances that the child might sneak into a chat session unsupervised.
In fact, if you don't use chat yourself, I would recommend simply not installing a chat client on your computer. Remember that many Web sites offer chat areas that anyone can access directly from his or her browser, without a chat client installed.