The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is launching a new Web site to answer parents' questions about Internet safety and computers. The free service features an interactive knowledge-base where parents can use natural language search to find information. If that's not enough, there's an "ask the experts" button that lets parents type in a question which will be answered by e-mail by real-life analysts at the center's Alexandria, Va., headquarters.
Separately, the organization formerly known as ICRA — Internet Content Rating Association — announced on Tuesday that it's re-launching itself as the Family Online Safety Institute, a Washington and London-based think tank to promote research and discussion about keeping kids safe online.
In the interest of disclosure, I am involved without compensation with both these groups. I serve on the advisory board of FOSI and spoke at its launch event in Washington this week. I'm also on the board of directors of NCMEC.
NCMEC's new site, www.NetSmartz411.org, is designed to help parents get a clue as to what their kids may be doing online and — how to help them avoid potentially dangerous or uncomfortable situations. The service, according to NCMEC CEO Ernie Allen, will give parents "direct access to NCMEC experts who can respond to their specific questions and concerns to open up the lines of communication to help bridge the technology gap."
Although no automated knowledge base can be perfect, the automated system should answer a lot of parents' most frequently asked questions. I typed in "How do I delete my child's picture on MySpace?" and got back a number of articles, including one titled "If I delete information from my child's blog or profile, is it gone or could it still be floating around online?" The answer, by the way, is that even if it's deleted from MySpace, "once a picture ... is posted on the Internet, it is available for anyone to see. Anyone can copy it. After someone copies and posts the picture to another location on the Internet, there is no telling how many other people will also copy and post that same picture."
For many parents, the ability to pose questions directly to an analyst will be useful because the experts can not only deal with general questions but can recommend follow up actions, especially if there is concern that a child is at risk. The staff undergo six months' training on the Internet, including social networking, chat rooms, e-mail and instant messaging. They're also trained on predator behavior.
NetSmartz411 is not the place to report a suspected crime, nor is it to be used in an emergency. If your child is in immediate danger, call 911. If you have information about an Internet-related crime against a child — including child pornography — report that to NCMEC's Cybertpline at www.cybertipline.com or by calling 800-843-5687.
The other big Internet safety announcement this week — the launch of the Family Online Safety Institute — involves helping parents, professionals and safety experts better understand how to move forward as we grapple with the ever-changing threats to children.
As I pointed out in, many of the Internet safety "rules" were written in the early 90's — including some that I wrote in 1994 for NCMEC. Back then, the Web was mostly a one-way street, where children were at risk of seeing inappropriate images but weren't creating their own Web sites. Now with social-networking sites like MySpace and video sites like YouTube, kids are information producers. In fact, we've even seen cases of kids being prosecuted for creating, appearing in and distributing their own "child pornography." We're also seeing new research questioning the effectiveness of some Internet safety messages. The new institute will convene experts to study, report on and discuss new ways to deal with emerging problems.
The group is headed by Stephen Balkam, who previously ran ICRA. ICRA provided a framework to enable Web site operators to rate their sites with a wide choice of tags that can be read by browsers and filtering software (including the parental controls built into Microsoft's Vista operating system). That effort will continue but, says Balkam, "it's just a tool in the toolbox." In other words we need more than just filters to protect our children.
Both the NCMEC and FOSI initiatives are part of a much broader set of programs designed to help parents grapple with keeping their kids safe online. Other leading resources include GetNetwise.org, Enough.org, Netsmartz.org as well as sites I help operate, BlogSafety.com, SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com.
A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books, including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid