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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Living | Arts / Cyberlinks
When parents need answers, they turn to NetMom

By Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff, 05/07/99

he other night, I found myself in a chat room on America Online, waiting for Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine to get to the point. Along with Hillary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, Morello was on line to discuss violent music in the aftermath of the shootings in Littleton, Colo.

But instead of addressing the subject, Morello began with a screed about the war in the Balkans and got on a soapbox about politicians decrying violent lyrics while NATO engages in a bloody bombing campaign. Morello certainly wasn't the first to make that connection, but the thing was, nobody in the chat room was there to discuss it. Most of the teenagers just wanted to type love letters to Morello, while some of the on-line parents had genuine concerns. What, if anything, should they be doing to monitor their kids' exposure to pop culture? And what about the Internet? How do you ensure kids' safety on line without hindering their exposure to its enormous potential?

Forget the chat room: All you got there was ''Blah, blah, blah, Yugoslavia,'' ''Blah, blah, blah, President Clinton,'' and ''Blah, blah, blah, Tom Morello is God.'' I gave up and zapped off an e-mail to NetMom, an expert in youth culture on the Internet.

Parents are concerned, NetMom replied. She's seen a dramatic increase in hits to her informative site (www.NetMom.com) since the Littleton tragedy. ''Kids are more savvy about the Internet than their parents are,'' says NetMom, a.k.a. Jean Armour Polly, a former librarian and author of ''The Internet Kids and Family Yellow Pages.'' ''But that doesn't mean parents should go off the deep end and pull the plug. They should investigate it. If you don't have it at home, go to a cybercafe or the public library. See what's out there.''

Polly is an Internet pioneer and something of a Net evangelist (she coined the term ''surfing the Net''), and she's not about to offer alarmist views about cyberspace. ''There are dangers out there, but outweighing those dangers is the wonder of the Internet and the fabulous sites created for and by kids. The educational benefits are so rich, and I'd hate to see parents scared off because of stories saying that the Internet is evil.''

Precisely. Polly urges parents to allow the Internet into their homes on their own terms. And she offers some sensible advice on how to do just that. The first thing, of course, involves old-fashioned, nontechnical communication. ''People don't talk to their kids,'' she says. ''You can have someone online talking in a chat room about how to be a better parent while their own kid is on the floor behind them. It's so funny. You can reach across the globe in a chat room, but why can't you reach out to your own kids?''

That's lesson No. 1. But what about the eerie feeling that your kids are one click ahead of you out there in cyberspace? Here are NetMom's suggestions. Some parents opt to filter the Internet in a variety of ways. First, some Internet service providers filter certain content for children. These providers can be found by checking out http://thelist.internet.com; do a search on ''filtered.'' AOL, for instance, offers its members a parental control option.

Then there are the filtering software packages, which have been controversial since they came on the market. First Amendment activists are against them as a general rule, especially in public libraries. But even the staunchest free-speech advocates would admit that people can make their own choices about what content comes into their homes. These packages, which include products like CyberSitter and SmartFilter, allow parents to block pages that contain pornography and hate speech. When they were introduced, they were creaky, blocking sites that might have a chicken breast recipe or a discussion of breast cancer. They've gotten better, though, and the question ''To filter or not to filter?'' is a personal choice.

''We don't have filters in our house,'' Polly says. ''Son of NetMom [Stephen] is almost 13, and we do a lot of talking about this.''

Son of NetMom, of course, is pretty adept on line. And his mother can tell you about plenty of places where kids can learn on line in a safe environment. She raves about some of the search engines designed specifically for children. The popular Ask Jeeves site, for instance, has Ask Jeeves for Kids (www.ajkids

.com). Polly also recommends www.yahoo

ligans.com and Kids Click, a site created by librarians (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/kids


The point is, you don't have to be powerless and you don't have to turn to chats with rock stars to figure out what to do. Danger may be only one click away in cyberspace, but so is a wealth of educational experiences. Just ask NetMom. She knows.

Liesl Clark didn't expect to be deluged with media requests when she ascended Mount Everest to film a PBS ''Nova'' documentary. But early this week, the team of climbers discovered the body of George Mallory, the British adventurer who disappeared on Everest in 1924. Word travels fast in these days of instant communication, especially when you're chronicling your adventures on a Web site (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/).

''While we were waiting at base camp, the climbers used their satellite phone and laptop to announce the news to the world,'' Clark wrote in an e-mail to this column. ''Instantly, the whole world knew. ... Somehow, Web-casting has taken the world by storm, and anyone can post news, without understanding the repercussions. While the outside world feasted on the breaking news, we were holding on at base camp for the team to return, still very much in the dark.

''Are we deluged with media requests? Just about every major magazine and newspaper has been in touch with us, asking for photos of Mallory and doing interviews. I just got off the satellite phone with the Sunday Times in London. I'm not so sure the media would be quite so anxious to speak with us if we were in Boston. I can only tell you that when I call a reporter and say, `This is Liesl Clark calling from Everest base camp,' they, amazingly, don't put me on hold.''

This story ran on page D09 of the Boston Globe on 05/07/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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