Develop guidelines for protégés concerning appropriate and safe Internet communications.

Relationships developed with mentors become channels for the passage of information, advice, opportunities, challenges, and support, with the ultimate goals of facilitating achievement and having fun. Keep in mind that, although the majority of Internet resources and communications are not harmful to children, participants may stumble into situations or be encouraged to participate in communications that are inappropriate. They may encounter objectionable material by innocently searching for information with a search engine or mistyping a web address. On the Internet, they might:

  • see materials that include content that is sexual, violent, hateful, or otherwise inappropriate for children
  • be exposed to communications that are harassing or demeaning and, perhaps, even be drawn into these types of conversations themselves
  • be encouraged to participate in activities that promote prejudice, are unsafe, or are illegal
  • meet a predator who uses the Internet to develop trusting relationships with kids and then arranges to meet them in person
  • make unauthorized purchases using a credit card

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to being exposed to material and engaging in activities that are inappropriate. This is because they are more likely than younger children to use computers unsupervised; have the skills to conduct searches on the Internet; participate in online discussions via email, chat, instant messaging, or bulletin board systems where inappropriate communications can occur; and have access to credit card information.

If your electronic community includes young people under the age of eighteen, obtain the informed consent of parents or guardians, making the risks and benefits of using the Internet clear. Sample content for a permission form for parents or guardians to sign is included in Chapter Thirteen of this book. Seek advice from legal experts in your organization or community as you explore ways to keep participants safe.

Establish rules for participation in your community, and distribute them to the participants and mentors. Appropriate rules depend upon the ages of participants and the nature of the community. Consider adopting a set of expectations similar to Kids' Rules for Online Safety, published at Tailor them for your participants and encourage families to post them near Internet-connected computers in their homes. The guidelines should include your expectations for participation in the community (for example, check messages each week), child safety issues, and a statement that tells young participants to inform their parents and the e-community administrator if they receive email that is inappropriate or makes them uncomfortable. Sample guidelines can be found in Chapter Thirteen of this book.