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Family Map: Summer technology safety and protecting your kids

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Mention summer safety to most parents, and they think of protecting their kids in the heat, sun and water. But now that children integrate technology into their daily lives, parents need to keep abreast of their kids’ indoor activities as well.

The free time during summer gives kids ample opportunities to test boundaries as they explore the Internet, talk with friends on wireless and home phones, send text messages, and scan countless viewing choices on television. But there are easy-to-use, effective tools available today that allow parents to stay in the driver’s seat of their children’s TV, Internet, phone and wireless activities.

Here’s a quick primer:

1) Get tech savvy. Ironically, the first step in this process is decidedly low-tech: Talk to your kids. You have to be proactive in discussing what technologies they’re using and how they’re using them. You should even experiment with the technologies, for instance, by sending an instant message to a relative. This will give you a better feel in evaluating risks and potential abuses.

Armed with this knowledge, you can easily find out what parental controls are available. AT&T Smart Limits is one example that brings together information on the privacy and protection features available to subscribers of the company’s high speed Internet, TV, home phone, and wireless services. The site is a show-and-tell of how parents can safeguard their children against misuse of technology.

2) Surf smart. From social networking sites and chat rooms to online gaming and other sites, today’s kids know their way around the Internet. But most Internet service providers offer parents tools to block access to specific Web pages, as well as to services such as e-mail, instant messaging, chat groups and message boards.

Since it’s virtually impossible to stay informed about all the sites kids want to visit, also check to see if your ISP offers permission slips, which allow children to request access to unauthorized Web sites. You get to be the judge. Tamper controls are another helpful feature, alerting parents if children attempt to change the settings.

3) Be wireless smart. As technology expands, so do the possibilities for misusing smart phones. This may take the form of your child making inappropriate calls or downloading expensive or inappropriate material.

Many carriers offer features allowing parents to block select incoming or outgoing calls to the phone and to install “sleep” functions so that calls after a certain time of night do not ring but messages go directly through to voice mail.

Carriers such as AT&T offer parental controls that restrict mobile phone access to web sites containing inappropriate content for children and restrict purchase of premium subscriptions and downloads such as games, ringtones and graphics.

There also are services, like AT&T FamilyMap that let users locate a family member’s cell phone on a map via Web browser on a PC or a mobile device. Such tools provide parents with peace of mind while away from their children.

4) Watch smart. The bad news is that, with hundreds of channels on the air, there are more inappropriate viewing options for kids than ever before. The good news: parents have more control than ever over what their kids are watching.

Virtually all TV service providers offer tools to filter movies based on MPAA ratings. Many even offer additional programming protection based on expanded ratings such as violence, language, nudity and sexual content.

Looking to go one step further? Some providers also enable you to prevent your children from viewing selected channels unless they enter the correct password.

5) Talk smart. Amid all the whiz-bang tech gadgetry, it could be easy to overlook old-fashioned home telephones as a potential trouble spot.

If your children are going to be home by themselves, teach them proper procedures for answering the telephone. Also be sure they understand not to give out personal information, or tell a caller that their parents are not at home.

Many phone service providers offer enhanced caller ID features that intercept unidentified calls and provide options to announce identification, complete the call, or leave a voice message.

To prevent children from making unauthorized calls, parents can utilize 900- and 976-blocking features for calls to numbers that charge a per-minute fee to your phone.

In the end, a parent’s responsibilities in overseeing their child’s technology use are not much different than in other areas of daily life. Set clear boundaries on appropriate and inappropriate uses of technology. Then monitor their activity and be consistent with enforcing rules.

Above all, don’t be intimidated. Even if you’re less savvy about the technology than your children, you have the tools to make your job simpler in an ever more complicated world.

Parents can find more information on technology safety and parental controls at www.att.com/smartlimits or www.pta.org.

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