I had always thought of the computer as fairly innocent. My kids seemed to love playing games, e-mailing their friends, and using it for research for their homework and papers. Granted, I knew there were issues and concerns, but it never occurred to me that the living-room computer, with filters and limited access, could ever lead to such extensive problems. How little did I know.

I’m one of many parents who found out the hard way that her child had become a victim of the Internet. And I do mean “victim.” At only 13 years old, my son’s natural curiosity, along with a tip from a friend, led him to an adult site where he was confronted with images that with his age, experience, maturity and sensitivities, he was completely unable to handle.

Curiosity made him return

Even as an adult, I was shocked at the graphic, violent and abusive nature of these sites. I did not know how to process such images, and had a very difficult time getting them out of my head. It is needless to say how entirely destructive such material is to the soul that naturally yearns to be uplifted and not degraded. At first my son was repulsed by what he saw. But curiosity made him return. The next time, it didn’t look quite so bad. By the third visit, he was hooked. And he was far from the only boy in his class with the same pastime.

A few months later, he couldn’t stay focused in school, his grades suffered, and he seemed to always be tired and wanting to sleep. I took him to the doctor, worried about his health, but tests showed nothing. The pediatrician asked me, “Do you think he might be depressed?” “Ridiculous,” I laughed. “He’s always been a happy boy, has loads of friends, a stable home, and knows he’s smart. Why would he be depressed?”

Several weeks after that, I received a call from our son’s Hebrew school principal saying he, too, thought our son was depressed. Unbeknownst to us at the time, our son was suffering from a deep sense of shame and feelings of helplessness over his addiction to the Internet, and specifically to these sites. I couldn’t believe it. I had missed the signs entirely, even laughed at the thought of it. I cried in despair. How would we help him?

Our son began therapy immediately, but I also realized that the presence of the family-room computer and its Internet access (despite filters) had become a silent menace in the house. He felt threatened by it, lured by it.

Being that my work depends on having Internet access, I couldn’t dismantle it, nor did I think that would solve the issue permanently. And truthfully, the mere existence of the computer wasn’t the problem. We needed to deal with the root of the problem, what was attracting him to these sites and creating this need. While getting rid of the Internet in our home would ensure it couldn’t happen in our home, it wouldn’t take away the problem he was suffering from. With computer access in the library, at friends’ homes and just about everywhere else, we knew that we needed to go to the core of the issue, not just take away a computer that when used properly was a conduit for tremendous productivity and good.

Our son was suffering from a deep sense of shame

To help protect our children, however, from the dangers on the Internet, we added a much stronger computer filter and enforced more “off-limits” times for all the kids. This created some family conflict, but we stuck to the rules for everyone’s safety.

From our experience, we realized how many of our friends were also unaware of the dangers, and likewise had overlooked telling signs of such problems with their own children. We have now learned that there are specific things to look out for and be aware of. Most importantly, no parent should feel that his or her child is immune.

If your teen is acting surly, don’t write it off simply as a typical teen thing. Psychologists are treating an increasing number of children and adults for depression and other problems stemming from various Internet addictions and the social alienation that is the natural byproduct of spending up to 35 hours a week alone with a computer instead of interacting with friends and family.

A recent survey of more than 1,000 Los Angeles yeshivah high school students conducted by the Aleinu Family Resource Center revealed some astounding truths. Among them: 85% of students felt that the Internet posed problems for kids today. Thirty percent admitted checking out adult sites regularly, and 25 percent had gambled on the Internet.

“I don’t think adults care too much,” one student wrote about the problem. “Kids get absorbed by the Web and live in it,” wrote another. Nearly 20 percent of the kids who responded said that their parents did not practice safe Internet guidelines for themselves or for their kids.

The following suggestions are based on my own experience, as well as the suggestions of adolescent psychologists, Internet detectives, educators, and even kids themselves:

  1. Does your child have a profile page on MySpace.com, Facebook, or a similar site? Do you even know? Don’t allow it. Not only are many kids’ profiles filled with antisocial ideas, profanity, and photos that are extremely inappropriate (in which the kids have posed), your kids expose themselves to Internet predators or even mean-spirited kids who might hack into their page and distort their profile. One girl in New York had her profile hacked, changing her into a neo-Nazi. She began to receive death threats the following day. While this is an extreme case, encouraging kids to publish diary pages for the whole world to see is a bad idea. And if your child posts irresponsible or objectionable material, it can come back to haunt your child later.
  2. Do you know where your child is chatting online? Many kids actually give out personal information on MySpace.com profile pages or in chat rooms, including their phone numbers and addresses, often to adult predators pretending to be your child’s age. Don’t think that predators don’t know where to go to find kids. They know.
  3. If your child has a computer in his or her room, take it out. Otherwise it is impossible to know when they are on the Internet, or even for how long. Allowing kids to be alone for so many hours with a computer behind a closed door is a recipe for alienation from you at a time when you need to keep communication open. Move the computer to a public spot in the house.
  4. The mere existence of the computer wasn’t the problem
  5. If you walk by the computer and your child immediately minimizes the page, ask him or her to show you what was being viewed. Their right to privacy is not nearly as great as your obligation to know what they are doing. Furthermore, if you have any suspicions, learn how to check the pages that were viewed while your child was online. This way you can monitor what is being looked at.
  6. Place limits on computer time. Most parents have no clue how many hours their kids are wasting online. Like TV, many parents have allowed the computer to become an electronic babysitter.
  7. Install strong Internet filters to protect against smut and popups, and install monitoring software that will send reports to your own computer showing you exactly where your child has been on the Internet. Search under “Internet monitoring programs” or ask your computer technician for a recommendation. Children should be made aware, however, that this is being done. The goal is not to make our children feel that we are spying on them, but rather to ensure their safety because of our love and concern for them.

Many parents today are reluctant to allow their kids to spend time outside unsupervised because they fear “stranger danger.” Yet the strangers can already be in our homes. It’s up to us to keep them out and protect our children from the seamy underside of the World Wide Web.

In our situation, while we are fortunate that our son is receiving excellent therapy, he still has a lot of work to deal with his feelings of shame and addiction.

I pray that what he has seen will not hurt his ability to have an emotionally mature and satisfying life. An innocence has been taken from him that will never be returned, and we now have much more of a responsibility to ensure that he be exposed to healthy, loving and positive relationships to reeducate him in a true way. In the meantime we hope to spread the word about the potential dangers on the Internet to other parents, so that they never need to go through what we have endured. And we believe and know that with the proper support, encouragement, and love, our son will get beyond this and be that much stronger of a person.