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Dear Professor Puzzler, My son is always pestering me to go online, and I am very uneasy about letting him browse the internet, because I know there's some really trashy websites out there. Have any suggestions?
The internet can be a frightening place.
It's like a city--there are places that are filled with bright lights and dazzling and exciting attractions. There are beautiful parks, museums, and zoos. There are also slummy, dirty, dark places where you wouldn't go in broad daylight. How much do you let your child wander the city alone?
You should be even more concerned about letting your child wander the internet alone, because in some cases the difference between the brightly lit park and the slum district is one click. I can go to google.com, type in one search term, and have a plethora of inappropriate websites (hate sites, pornographic sites, etc) listed on my computer screen.
Browse the internet with your child. Help your son find the brightly lit places, and make the internet a family experience.
As your child grows older, he will begin having more freedom--both at school and at home--and the best thing you can do for him while you have the opportunity is to teach him appropriate use of this powerful (yet oh-so-frightening) resource we call the internet.
2016 Update: Internet use has become ubiquitous among children in the decade since this was written. Everyone seems to have a smart phone, and parents tend to forget that the same resources (good, bad, and ugly) that are available on the home computer are also available on the phone. The warning to proceed with caution is as important as ever!