Poll: Public Perceives Net as Threat to Kids

Some 94 percent of consumers in a recent Harris Interactive survey believe the Internet poses a threat to children.

Among the biggest threats perceived by the respondents in the poll — which was commissioned by San Francisco, California, network security firm Zone Labs, a Check Point company — were predators in chat rooms (61 percent) and pornography (16 percent).

“The [94 percent] is higher than what we expected,” Zone Labs General Manager Laura Yecies told TechNewsWorld.

A growing awareness of the ‘Net is a major factor shaping parents’ perceptions of the dangers lurking for kids in cyberspace. “Parents are learning more,” Yecies said. “Their kids are using it more so they’re paying attention to it more.”

“They’re also seeing that the types of threats are more dangerous.” she added. “That there’s an offline component to the threats.”

Bad Actors, Not Bad Tech

One children’s advocate, though, framed online threats in another light.

Parry Aftab, an attorney specializing in Internet privacy and security law and head of wiredsafety.org, a sort of neighborhood watch for the Web manned by some 9,000 volunteers, told TechNewsWorld, “The Internet is essential to children. It’s essential to their education, their future and their lives.

“The Internet isn’t a threat to children,” she continued, “but certain bad actors on the Internet are a problem for children.”

Contrary to the survey’s findings, Aftab opined that predators skulking in chat rooms weren’t the greatest threat to children on the Internet. “Parents sophisticated with the Internet and those of us who understand Internet crimes against children recognize that it’s not chat rooms, it’s Instant Messaging that’s a greater threat to children,” she said.

However, she added, “Anywhere kids are going to be posting too much personal information about themselves or allow strangers to communicate with them is a potential threat to children.”

New Main Street

Jacklyn Leavitt, chair of the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, which was formed by governors and first spouses, including First Lady Laura Bush, characterized the ‘Net as a very ominous place for children.

Instructing kids about Internet safety is about responsible parenting today, she said. “When we grew up, our parents didn’t have to have this discussion with us, but we must have it with our children because what they don’t know about the Internet can really hurt them.”

“America’s new Main Street is the Information Superhighway,” she told TechNewsWorld. “We have to be upfront with our children in talking about what can happen.”

She recommended that parents drill into their children three rules about using the Internet that can be summed up as keep, don’t meet, tell — keep personal information protected, don’t meet in person anyone met online, and tell a parent or trusted adult anything seen on the computer that makes you uncomfortable.

Feeling Afraid

Although consumers are tuned in to Internet peril, they appear tuned out to protecting themselves from it. Only 50 percent of the poll’s respondents said they’d installed a firewall on their computers and only 23 percent had installed a full security suite.

That gap in security knowledge, Yecies reasoned, has resulted in a growing sense of fear by consumers of the ‘Net. The survey found, for example, that 78 percent of its sample did not feel safer today on the Web than they did a year ago.

She said that Zone Labs is working on giving consumers a realistic picture of the threat environment on the Internet and advising them on practical techniques — in terms of both behavior and technology — to protect their children.

To those ends, Zone Labs offers to consumers a free version of its firewallsoftware, ZoneAlarm, and has set up a new Web site thatincludes a free 18-page guide to protecting a family PC.

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