Install filtering software on your computer.
There are tons of different tools that can help block potentially harmful websites, e-mails, and instant messages from ever appearing on the screen. The type you should choose will vary based on your family’s needs and the age of your children; visit getnetwise.org for descriptions, links, and detailed tutorials on how to get the programs. (Good news for low-tech types: The instructions are written with real people in mind.)
Enable SPAM filters on your kids’ e-mail accounts.
Protect them not only from annoying junk mail but also sexually explicit ads, scams, and solicitations. For younger children (11 and under), you may want to “white list” certain addresses—meaning only e-mails from people whom you’ve approved will filter through. (Click on the “Settings” menu or contact your ISP for details.)
Take advantage of the built-in parental controls on your computer.
The two biggest operating systems on new computers—Mac OSX and Windows Vista—come equipped with features like filters, time-limiting tools, and monitoring capabilities. To activate them, go to the “System Preferences” menu in the control panel, or consult your manual. You can also set up different accounts for family members with corresponding “clearance” levels. (In other words, you can sneak a peek at perezhilton.com; your 9-year-old cannot.)
Clean up the iTunes account.
Apple’s popular MP3 store allows you to keep a lid on what your kids can download based on a content ratings system—i.e., no songs with explicit lyrics, etc. (For help with setup, visit the “Support” area on apple.com.)
Familiarize yourself with peer-to-peer sites like Facebook and MySpace.
These days, most kids have at least one profile displaying their hobbies, thoughts, and photos. Set up your own account and “friend” your children—you can be privy to status updates, see their roster of friends, and acquaint yourself with the way the site works (can anyone see the profile or just preapproved people?). One major no-no: Personal information such as a phone number, an address, or a Social Security number should never be displayed.
Remove Webcams from your children’s rooms.
Any Webcam time should be logged in a family room or other public setting where you can monitor the usage.
If your children have cell phones, call your provider and ask how to keep track of their text messages.
Many services allow you to see a log of phone numbers that have been called or texted; while you want to be careful not to violate your children’s privacy and trust, a quick scan of the list can ensure that the communications are on the up-and-up. (Another move to consider for cell safety: disabling the Web service that comes standard on most phones today.)
Check out the download folder on your computer and the recent history log on your Web browser.
Most questionable content can be found either in the form of an attachment, which is automatically saved to a folder in your computer, or on various websites.
Have a fact-finding discussion about how your children use technology—then keep having it.
This medium changes by the millisecond, and (let’s face it) your kids are probably light-years ahead of you already. Ask to see their favorite websites, find out what their typical IM conversations are like, peruse their e-mail pals. Then make sure they understand that the basic safety rules—don’t talk to strangers, behave as if your parents were always watching—apply online as well as off.