What do you get when you mix Michelangelo and the Internet?
Maybe a parenting lesson for today's cyber-age.
That was Kate Shafer's experience, anyway. The Bethesda, Md., woman is the mother of two girls, ages 12 and 15, who use the Internet almost nightly to e-mail classmates and do homework.
Recently one of Mrs. Shafer's daughters went online to research Michelangelo's marble masterpiece "David" for a report. But the antipornography filter in her America Online software blocked out all information about the nude male sculpture.
So it was up to mom, not some automatic technology, to decide what was and wasn't proper for the child to see. That's just the kind of involvement that keeps Internet experiences safe, say experts. Filter "blockers" can help.
But parents may sometimes need to keep an eye on their children, just as they would if the kids were exploring the physical world.
"As a parent, I have to be the one who decides 'David' is different than an unknown male exposing himself," says Shafer.
Helping children to enrich themselves via the vast resources of the World Wide Web while protecting them from its seamier aspects is not an easy job. This week Washington is hosting a major conference, sponsored by a coalition of high-technology companies and public-policy groups, that is focusing on ways to make cyberspace safe for kids while avoiding new government regulations.
"Just like a parent who covers electrical outlets ... we must help parents anticipate and block dangerous places on the Internet," said Vice President Al Gore at the meeting opening on Dec. 2.
There's already much that parents can do on their own, of course. Close supervision of young Web surfers, a clear understanding of the online world, and communication about restricted areas can go a long way toward keeping cyberspace safe and enjoyable.
Shafer has become a model for the protective parent of the future the online industry hopes will evolve. "In some ways, it's like the real world," she says. "There are places that naturally they wouldn't go, and I wouldn't want them to be there," she explains.
One big problem in this area is the ease of going too far. As Shafer's experience with Michelangelo shows, it's easy to wall off vast amounts of useful information from kids.
But underage exposure to adult corners of the Web is driving efforts, and controversy, over how best to develop technology to restrict juvenile access. Last February, President Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to transmit indecent materials online to an underage audience. The Supreme Court subsequently struck down key parts of the law.
Seeking to avoid passage of another such bill, the online industry is engaged in a self- policing effort. The industry proposes to implement new filtering technology, wage a public-service campaign to educate parents about the Internet, and create a hot line to report online pornography.
Filtering is already standard. Filters developed by America Online (AOL) and others detect potentially offensive sites by searching for key words. Others, including technology developed by the Disney Co. and Net Nanny, allow a computer to travel only to pre-approved sites visited by a censor and determined to be family friendly.
Earlier filters blocked too much data. Critics charge that the new filters are little better.
Indeed, a key goal of the meeting this week is training parents to use the improved technology as a tool, not as an electronic baby sitter. Twenty-six percent of parents use filter software that comes standard on AOL or Microsoft software. But fewer than 4 percent use software like that created by Net Nanny.
Perhaps the most vexing problems parents face are chat rooms. These forums are venues people log onto to discuss mutual interests, including sex. Additionally, unsolicited e-mail often contains sexually explicit advertisements for online pornography.
Access to chat rooms and other unresolved problems drive criticism of the industry's self-policing efforts. Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana has sponsored legislation that would require all commercial Web sites containing information deemed harmful to minors to register and block access to kids.
"We should be able to regulate in some way the pornography on the Web to protect children," says Nancy Edwaard, a middle school teacher in Holland, Mich. She says that understanding the Web is the best way to protect her students and her own two sons. "I'm taking computer classes with the seventh-graders ... on my own time, I have to learn somehow!" she says.
Internet Safety Tips
Here are ways to keep your child's online experience safe:
* Make sure your children know not to share personal information, such as name, address, or telephone number with anyone online.
* Keep the computer in the family room or kitchen so you can monitor the sites and areas children access.
* Help your child feel comfortable asking you questions about online activities.
* Keep kids out of chatrooms unless they're being monitored. Children should not respond to messages that are obscene or that make them uncomfortable.
* Make sure children do not arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met on the Internet without telling a parent or guardian.
* Get to know your children's online friends.
* Discuss these rules and post them near the computer.