CYBERSPACE, 2011 (D.O.T.) - After two major studies have revealed that it's far too easy for kids to gain access to parts of the Internet that may be dangerous or simply inappropriate for them - experts proposed several ways to "lock down" the Web to keep kids safe.
The ideas included using credit card numbers for log-ins, rather than merely entering a year of birth, or even a worldwide "Internet pass."
"No one is taking the responsibility to do age verification for kids," said family therapist, Dr. Cindy Bunin. Some argue the need for more laws. Bunin and others argue that it is the responsibility of parents and the owners of social media sites to monitor usage.
That may be a problem.
One of those recent studies pointed to growing leniency among parents about what their kids do online. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that 7.5 million kids are using Facebook, violating the company's age restrictions -- and in most cases, parents helped their child create an account.
Another survey of 1,000 adults by the Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project found that parents are helping their children access social networks, despite age restrictions for those under 13.
Yet, many parents are unaware of the dangers.
Dorian Lewis, a marketing specialist, says she noticed her pre-teen son started behaving oddly in middle school. After spending time on MySpace and instant chat, he would become agitated and depressed.
Eventually, she started investigating. "Friends" had been taunting him and betting him to commit suicide. "His self-esteem plunged and he became fixated on what others were saying about him," she said. Her son did attempt suicide, but she found him in time and brought him to the hospital.
"MySpace is a terrible tool in the hands of adolescents," she says. "It allows no safe haven for those who are bullied. There is no closing the door, the bullies are in your home with your child."
Are enough protections in place?
Part of the solution is technological, and parents have a bevy of security tools available. SpectorSoft eBlaster monitors all social networking activity and sends reports by e-mail. Another tool, Trend Micro Online Guardian, can also monitor Facebook conversations.
Unfortunately, many of the tools available are complicated and must be maintained and monitored. One simple step for policing child Web access is to move the computer into the family area and keep them out of the bedroom, where it is too easy to find dangerous sites.
There are also existing age verification services such as Privo. Or a parent could first prove their age using credit card verification and then vouch for a child's age. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the company that assigns Web address and loosely governs or regulates the Internet, did not respond to requests for information on the feasibility of such a program.
Another suggestion is to cordon off sections of the Web that are safe for kids, and block access to all adult-oriented content, including social networks. But that could lead to child predators focusing only on those areas, experts warned -- and kids will likely figure out how to get on the "real" Internet anyway.
FTC spokesperson Claudia Farrel explains that the agency does monitor whether social networks are adhering to child safety regulations, such as COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act).
The role of parents
The security experts agree: smart parenting, better education, and knowing how to deal with cyber-bullying, personal attacks, malware and other dangers is the best answer.
"I'm not an advocate for a self-policing Internet, but at the same time, regulations often are difficult to enforce," said Bob Gaines, a security expert with AllCovered.com. "An open Web often creates too many layers of anonymity, which allow criminals and other nefarious persons to act with impunity."
"Software can't protect people from themselves," added John Bambenek, a security expert with Bambenek Consulting, explaining that there is no perfect technical answer.
Lewis, whose intervention in cyber-bullying helped save her son, believes Web technology is a persistent threat that needs better safeguards.
"I am so happy [my son] didn't have a cellphone at the time," she says. "They would have used that as a weapon as well."
By John Brandon, science and technology reporter
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