Dean Johnston likes an old arms-control motto when it comes to youngsters using the Internet: "Trust, but verify."
Johnston is a fan of the Internet. And he always liked letting young family members with their parents' permission use his computer for homework and to e-mail friends.
Until about a year ago.
That's when he started getting return e-mail from pornographic sites. He took the news to the youngsters' parents.
The parents put monitoring software on the computer to record every screen the young men see Web sites, chat rooms and all e-mails sent and received.
Just as important, Johnston said, the parents called a family meeting. They reminded the youngsters of family rules against sites they find objectionable. They explained that the rules exist for the youngsters' protection. They described the monitoring they had put in place. And they warned that if the young men or their friends broke the rules, computer use would be suspended.
"It put the guys in charge, it put the responsibility on them, where it should be," Johnston said.
Fears, safety options
Parents are increasingly concerned about cyberspace risks: Recent research in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. indicates that one in five youngsters who are regular Internet users have received at least one sexual solicitation online.
But while 84 percent of parents have established rules on Internet use, according to the association's survey, only 25 percent use technical controls on family computers.
Judy Corrao's home computer blocks objectionable Web sites. It's a precaution against the natural temptation of forbidden fruit, she said. But she doesn't like the sound of electronically eavesdropping on a child's every move.
"Kids will be kids," said Corrao, of Minneapolis. "But I'm a child of the '60s and monitoring sounds so Big Brother."
Philip Bush's home computers are going to a network system that records every Web site visited. Bush, a Minnesota judge, said he'll tell his teen-age sons about the recording process and the possibility that he could check it. He likened it to police radar: Drivers slow down on a stretch of road when they see radar, whether it's in use or not.
What's the answer?
So what is the best way to keep children safe online?
"There are as many good solutions as there are families," said Anne Collier, editor of NetFamilyNews.org, an online advice newsletter. "And usually it's a combination of things."
The experts agree on two fundamental points, though: Don't assume that technical controls will corral your youngsters where you want them online, because even the latest technology has its limitations; and don't be intimidated by computers.
The many technical options on the marketplace are basically of three types:
Some keep things from getting into your computer, such as files from a list of off-limits sites.
Some block things from leaving your computer, such as a gullible child's name and phone number put in an e-mail at a stranger's request.
And some record any use of the family computer, enabling a parent to later see everywhere a youngster went online.
Blocking software, for example, can program search engines not to respond to certain words, such as "bomb." The problem is, some will block information on the Manhattan Project, right along with instructions for building an explosive. Also, most recognize only English, so a youngster can still find plenty of salacious sites.
Collier urges parents not to be intimidated by technology.
"Just transfer all the good things you've learned about parenting over the years into cyberspace," she said.
For example, she said, you don't want youngsters hanging out with strangers online, "any more than you want them to go out with people you don't know or go to parties with people you've never met."
Her favored approach is to use no technology, except for youngsters who show signs of trouble such as time on porn sites or e-mail with hate groups. She explained this way: Parents who take their children swimming may use life preservers, but for real protection they need to teach their youngsters how to swim.
"Filtering is like using life preservers," she said. "But teaching how to take your values with them when they go online, that's teaching them how to swim."