Pornography & Other Dangers
Look - we don't want to scare you. (Well, maybe just a little.) But, as you've almost certainly discovered by now, the Internet is not all peaches and cream. There's some bad stuff out there: some stuff you need to protect your family against. On this page, we'll quickly tour the rough side of town, stopping for a few highlights. (Keep the windows closed!) After you've read this, browse over to our Protecting Your Children section for some solutions. (And, yes, while they're not always foolproof, solutions do exist. You just have to know them - and use them!)
Go back to the Paleolithic era, and you'll find cave drawings and sculpture that seem to have been designed for sexual arousal. But pornography has never been as widely available or as easily accessible as it is on the Internet. Reliable estimates are impossible to come by, but one widely cited source says there are 4.2 million porn sites: that's 12% of all the sites on the whole World Wide Web! What's more, the past few years have seen an explosion of YouTube-like porn video sites that present massive amounts of "amateur" pornography which never existed before. Why so many sites devoted to porn? Well sadly, on the Internet, as in so many other walks of life, supply is based on demand: the same source estimates that there 68 million porn-related search engine requests per day: some 25% of the entire daily total!
Given the stunning amount of free smut available on the Internet - along with the Net's apparent, if perhaps not real, cloak of privacy - it's perhaps no wonder that traditional pornographers are struggling to compete. We suspect you're less worried about them, however, than you are about keeping their wares away from your family! And that's the other problem. This stuff is unbelievably easy to access. Virtually every word that you can think of (and many that you can't!) have been grabbed by the porn merchants and registered as a .com or a .net. Go ahead and experiment, think of a sexual word or anything to do with sex and type it into your browser address as a www.xxxx.com. But be warned: a lot of this stuff is very hardcore!
And just to make it worse, the really bad guys also register names that are just a simple typo away from legitimate, child-friendly sites. So your child can be innocently trying to get onto his or her favorite site, make one mistake, and, well, you can imagine the results.
Combine the Internet's high-powered communications capabilities with the shocking cruelty that can exist among kids, and you've got the awful phenomenon of cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying is the media's term for whenever a child is tormented, threatened, harassed, or humiliated online. Cyber-bullying can take the form of hurtful or obscene messages sent to your child, either privately (via email, instant messaging, or texting); or in public venues (such as blogs or social networking Web sites like MySpace). Their own private messages might be forwarded without consent; embarrassing photos of them might be posted without permission; rumors about them might be spread online. In some cases, cyber-bullies masquerade as the victim, and post inflammatory or hateful messages using his or her identity. Sometimes, cyber-bullying even involves adults, and that can make it even more dangerous, as witnessed by the tragic recent suicide of Megan Meier. Think cyber-bullying is rare? You wish. According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 32% of all teenagers who use the internet say they've personally experienced at least some form of it.
Over the past several years, many children have gone deep into debt playing poker and other games of chance at online casinos. These online casinos are supposed to limit access to those over 21, but those restrictions are far from foolproof. Thankfully, this may be one area where the Internet's actually becoming safer. The 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act has made it illegal to bet online using credit cards or electronic transfers, or for banks to process payments on behalf of online bettors. This has driven many of the largest Internet gambling companies out of the U.S. market (you don't see those ads for online poker anymore these days). It's still possible to find action with smaller offshore poker rooms, however, so watch your credit card statements carefully!
As we discuss in greater detail in Threats & Challenges, malicious hackers have developed many forms of software designed to attack your computers and/or steal valuable personal information from you and your children. These range from viruses that infect your computer and prevent it from working properly, to 'bots' that transform your computer into a zombie which can be used to attack other computers; to 'trojans' that contain malicious payloads such as software that tracks your keystrokes and reports your passwords to credit card thieves.
Online phishing attacks use technical and social fakery to trick you into revealing your personal identity data, passwords, and financial account information. For instance, you may receive an email that appears to come from your financial institution, telling you that you need to log on to fix a problem. When you follow the helpfully provided link, you're taken to a fake site that looks like the real one. You enter your password, and they've got you. In some cases, phishing attacks even use hidden malware that misdirects your browser to a fraudulent site even when you enter the correct web address for your financial provider.