Notes, Advice and Warnings

for Kids on the Web

If you need help with some of the words or information here, ask your parents, a teacher, or some other adult you trust to read through this with you.
Sometimes somebody on the Net may ask you for information your parents may not want you to give out. Always remember, if thinking about doing something makes you feel uncomfortable, it's probably wrong. When in doubt, ask.

Along the same lines, if reading or looking at something on the Net makes you uncomfortable, don't look at it! The back button is your friend.


This symbol marks something that you might be interested in knowing about. It may, for example, mark a section that tells you how to do something, like keeping secrets.
This marks a section that gives you advice. It talks about something that you really ought to think about before you do something, and maybe ask your parents about.
This marks something that's probably OK, but might have unexpected consequences that you really need to think about, and might conflict with some rule that your parents have made for you or that you have made for yourself.
$$$ Money:
This tells you what some site is selling (that is, trying to get you to pester your parents until they buy it for you).

What if they want a password?

Before you can play some games on the Web, you may have to fill out a form that asks for your name or a nickname, and asks you to pick a password. This is a very good idea -- you wouldn't want somebody else to go claiming your game scores, or making you look stupid by sending dumb messages that appear to come from you.


If you already have a password at home or at school, pick a different one! Remember, your password is a secret, and any time you tell something to more than one other person (or computer), it's not a secret anymore.

For some things, like a game on the World Wide Web, it's ok to use something easy to remember like a parent's first name. But if your reputation, your money, or your homework is at stake, play it safe and use something really weird that mixes numbers, upper- and lowercase letters, and maybe a bit of punctuation. Some people develop a system for coming up with passwords that are hard to guess but easy to remember. Just don't tell anyone else your system.

Keeping Secrets

If you go around giving out different passwords to lots of places on the Web, you'll probably have to write them down somewhere. Do you have a box with a lock on it in your room? A diary? If you're on a Unix machine, you can make a file called my-secrets that only you (or your system administrator) can read, by typing:
  touch my-secrets
  chmod og-rw my-secrets
You can make a whole private directory with the commands:
  mkdir Private
  chmod og-rwx Private
If you're not on a Unix machine, keep your secrets on a floppy disk and keep it with you.

If you really need to keep something secret, find out about encryption.

Encryption is illegal in some parts of the world, and in any case may give your parents or system administrator the impression that you don't trust them.
If you do decide to encrypt something, don't forget your password! If you forget your Unix password, your system administrator can give you another one. If you forget an encryption password, your data is gone for good.

What if they want my real name?

In some traditions (for example, some African and American Indian cultures, not to mention comic-book superheroes) people have a name they use in public and another, secret name they tell to no-one. The secret name has magical powers, and if anybody learns your secret name, you're in big trouble.

Some people think that the Net is that way. They use nicknames or handles, and don't tell anyone who they really are. As for me, I'm Steve Savitzky and my daughter is Katy, and I don't care who knows it, because anyone who wants to find out, can do it. But ask your parents what they think. And by all means, if you don't feel comfortable giving out your real name, don't.

In any case, treat your password as a secret name, and don't tell it to anybody!

What if they want my address?

This section applies to forms on the Web; e-mail is different.
Ask an adult to advise you on this one. They may be planning to send you e-mail or snail-mail trying to sell you something you don't need; your parents may object to this. You may have to look in a section labled ``for parents'' or ``for adults'' to find out why they want your address; you may want a grown-up around when you do this.

If they don't ask for your street address it's almost certainly safe to tell them the rest -- they may be collecting information about where you're from, but at least they won't be sending you junk mail.

Also, if the people who want your address say they'll keep it a secret and won't sell their mailing list, you can probably trust them. But they can still send you junk mail, unless they say they won't. And many places will come right out and tell you that they'll send you a catalog or a flier. (They'll probably send one every month, but that may be just what you want.) But if they don't tell you what they're going to do with the information they're asking for, ask them or assume the worst.

What if they want my phone number?

This section applies to forms on the Web; e-mail is different.
Asking for your phone number can be a sneaky way of finding out where you live, and they may call your parents trying to sell them stuff. People who call other people on the phone and try to sell them stuff are called telemarketers (some people call them things I shouldn't write down where kids can read them); they usually call around dinnertime, which isn't very nice. If this happens, get the parent who's best at telling people off to write them a nasty letter.

What if it's too grown-up for me?

Just skip it and find something else to look at. What people find interesting changes as they grow up. Also, remember that there are millions of people on the Net, from almost every country and culture in the world. You're bound to be interested in different things, and offended by different things. Try to be tolerant.

You may have noticed I didn't put a warning sticker on this one. Many adults have different opinions about what children, and even other adults, should be allowed to read, listen to, and look at. These opinions change with time, and vary from place to place. In Japan, people take baths together and don't worry about seeing each other naked. In some Moslem countries it's illegal for a woman to show her face in public. Some people think that certain kinds of books should be burned, or at least banned. There is no agreement over which kinds of books. Others (like me) think that burning books is worse than burning people. Enough said?

What if they say things I disagree with?

Once again, there are lots of people and cultures on the Net. Many of the most vocal people have strongly-held opinions about controversial subjects, and try to bring other people to their way of thinking. This is sometimes a good thing -- it can make you think about your own beliefs and opinions. It's a problem if someone gets obnoxious, insulting, or overly insistant.

(By the way, an argument over beliefs, opinions, or preferences on the Net is called a ``religious argument'' even when the subject isn't religion, which most people have enough sense not to argue about. Two of the most frequent arguments on the Net are over which of the PC or Macintosh is the better personal computer, and which of vi and emacs is the better text editor.)

As my own mother used to tell me, ``it takes all kinds to make a world.'' Sometimes I wish more people had mothers who told them that.

(Also by the way, a rude or insulting message in e-mail or a newsgroup posting is called a ``flame.'' Flaming is considered impolite. My mother also used to tell me, ``if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.'')

$$$ What are they selling?

Many sites are trying to sell something. This is just like advertising on TV that's aimed at kids. What they really want you to do is pester your parents until they buy something for you.

There may also be an order form on the Web page. Don't use it!!! Usually the form asks for a credit-card number, so you'ld have to ask your parents to place the order for you anyway. Chances are, they won't. The best thing to do is put the URL that describes the thing being sold onto your bookmark list, and e-mail the links to your parents about a month before Christmas or your birthday.

What if they send me e-mail?

Keypals and net friends are great! You can have friends all over the world, swap pictures and your favorite dessert recipes, and maybe even meet face-to-face some day. A couple of warnings are in order:

On the other hand, if you're introduced through somebody you both trust, you're probably safe, and less likely to be surprised. If two 6th grade classes in different parts of the world get together to exchange e-mail, for example, there are unlikely to be any impostors in the group.

The Web is also a good way to check up on people. If the person you're corresponding with has a Web page, take a look. If not, ask whether their school is on the Web, or any of their friends. If you know someone's last name and the city they live in (in the US), you can often find them in Switchboard, which gets its information from phone books.

What should I look out for?

If someone sends you e-mail and you haven't been introduced through your school, a parent, or a friend that you know personally (not just online), there are a few warning signs to watch out for.
If they ask you not to tell your parents about them.
Tell your parents right away!
If they send you a gift.
Ask yourself if you would take a gift like that from a stranger in a car.
If they won't tell you much about themselves.
Maybe they're not who they say they are.
If they do tell you about themselves and it doesn't check out.
Make sure you do check it out. If they tell you the name of the town they live in, look it up on a map. Ask them questions. Does their school have a Web page? If it doesn't all check out, that means they've been lying to you and will probably lie to you about other things, too.

What should I do if I get e-mail I don't want?

One of the hazards of having your name and e-mail address out there on the Net is that people will find it.

Don't respond directly!
There are really two cases:

  1. They're trying to sell you something. (see, also, What are they selling?
  2. They've said something that disturbs you (see the previous section).

$$$ Selling Something

E-mail that offers a product, or tells you about a money-making opportunity, or describes a chain letter or other scheme, is called ``Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail'' (UCE). It's more commonly known as ``spam''. Some of these things are just bad ideas; others, like chain letters, are actually illegal.

Many ``spammers'' will use a fake return address; a few will use the address of someone else who complained about them. Some will give you an address to reply to in order to get off their list. Don't. In many cases, this just tells them that your address is valid and that you're reading your e-mail. They may not send you anything, but they may sell your name to somebody else.

If you really want to stop them, tell your service provider (or a parent) to contact their service provider. Often that doesn't do much good, but it's better than replying directly.

Danger Signs

``Don't talk to strangers'' is just as good advice on the net as it is on the street. If you get e-mail that disturbs you, there are two possibilities, neither of them good.
  1. The person sending it is using a fake or incorrect address, either to get someone else in trouble or just to hide behind it while they make you feel bad, or because they're using a machine in a public place that the previous user didn't erase their address from. (This happened to me recently, which is why I'm writing this in the first place). In that case, replying directly will just cause the real person behind the address, if any, to think that you're accusing them of something bad. They'll be upset, if nothing else. You don't want that.
  2. The person sending it is using their own address. In that case, you might be replying to a harmless pervert, or perhaps to a dangerous criminal. You don't want that, either.
In either case, have your parents or your service provider's system administration department find out who this person's service provider is, and contact their system administrator. Often it will be a user called ``postmaster''. Some of the larger service providers have a user called ``abuse'' for reporting this kind of thing.

If the person's domain isn't a service provider you recognize (for example or it might be a private domain, and postmaster might be the person who sent you the mail in the first place. In that case you had better contact their service provider. You can look this up using the search forms at the InterNIC

What if they want to visit me?

For Kids Living at Home

If a friend you've met on the Net wants to visit you, or wants you to visit them, make sure that at least one of your parents gets to meet them, too. Inviting them to your house is good, or have a parent take you over to their house. Have your parents arrange things on the phone first.

If you can't arrange for a phone conversation that includes a parent on each end of the line (for example, you're trying to make all the arrangements by e-mail), or if your parents don't want to tell strangers where you live, or you just feel embarassed about how messy your room is, you can arrange to meet in a public place (maybe at a restaurant or a local amusement park). Be sure you each have a parent along.

For Young People Away from Home

Things are different when you're out on your own. If you're away at college, or just living in a apartment and working, be very careful about who you reveal your address, and maybe even your name and phone number, to. If you want to meet somebody you've struck up an acquaintance with on the Net, do it in a public place and bring along a friend.

Other Safety-related Sites

Safety on the Internet and KID SAFETY on the Internet
at the University of Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, which has lots of other safety-related online documents. Best viewed with Netscape.

Copyright Notice:

Copyright 1995-1999 by Stephen Savitzky. All rights reserved.

The original of this document may be freely linked to, though I would appreciate a brief note via e-mail so that I can thank you personally and possibly return the favor. If you are reading a copy, please link to the original, at <URL:>.

Copies or excerpts of this document may be made and distributed in any physical medium for any non-commercial purpose, provided:

If you wish to copy this document for commercial gain or make it part of a shareware distribution, please contact me at the address below in order to negotiate a license. At some point, paper copies (booklets) of this document will be made available in bulk.

If you wish to make an electronic copy, please make a link instead. Here's why linking is better than copying.

Last modified: Thu Nov 4 21:54:17 1999
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