Safety on the Internet -- For Kids

The following document is provided to OUPD permission of Stephen R. Savitzky and was last updated to our server on Jul 24th, 1995. I have changed only the colors/format of the document, not the content. Contact information and links to his site are provided at the end of this document.

If you are young and need help with some of the words or information here, ask your parents or another trusted adult 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.


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.

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. Warning! 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.

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 come right and 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 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 desert recipes, and maybe even meet face-to-face some day. A couple of warnings are in order:
  • Ask a parent to advise you about giving somebody you've just met in e-mail your real name (if it's not normally in your header), your phone number, or your address. If you're away at college be especially careful about this.
  • Be prepared for a few surprises; not everyone you meet on the Net is exactly who they say they are. That 18-year-old girl who's been reading your poetry and advising you about how to get a boyfriend might be a 13-year-old boy who's hacked into his big sister's account, a 15-year-old girl trying to act grown-up, a lonely 50-year-old woman with kids your age, or (less likely, but not totally impossible) a criminal looking for potential victims. She may even be a politician or a journalist trying to find out how easy it is for criminals to meet kids on the net.
  • Be prepared for a certain amount of mistrust and suspicion, too. If somebody is mailing from student account on a machine in a high school, you can be pretty sure about them, but they may not be so sure about you.

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.

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 at least one of your parents gets to meet them, too. Inviting them to your house is best, or have a parent take you over to their house. Have your parents arrange things on the phone first.

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.

To visit the author's site for this document,
and other good kid-stuff, use the following link:


The author can be contacted by email at:

Stephen R. Savitzky <>
Ricoh California Research Center
2882 Sand Hill Road, Suite 115
Menlo Park, CA 94025-7022