The Internet Protection Software that Smart Parents Count OnKim Boatman
The Internet is increasingly becoming an integral part of our children’s daily lives. As a tool for school research, entertainment and social networking, it is also the first place they turn to simply satisfy their curiosity. But how do you make sure your child is learning about the life of lemurs on Madagascar and not straying onto inappropriate web sites? How do you offer protection from unsavory elements such as pornography, recreational drug use and hateful content? And how do you monitor their communications?
Most parents want to exercise a measure of control over their child’s access. Although software filters have been around for a while, the possibilities for managing your child’s online experience are expanding. Both Microsoft’s new operating system Vista and Apple’s new Mac OS X Leopard feature integrated parental controls. Internet service providers often offer some control features. And a plethora of commercial software filters remain available.
“It’s good practice for parents to install software that allows them to monitor what their children do on the Internet,’’ says Ron Teixeira, executive director of the non-profit National Cyber Security Alliance.
Among the areas where you can use parental controls to direct your child’s experience are:
Restrict web access.
You might want to allow your child to just visit certain sites or to be blocked from certain sites. You might want to limit file downloads. Access can be limited to sites containing offensive material, such as violence, pornography or hate-based groups.
Some filters, such as the built-in controls on Microsoft Vista, allow you to control access to games. You can choose age ratings, types of games and even designate specific games you will or won’t allow.
Establish time limits.
A number of programs allow you to limit the duration of your child’s time on the computer or to even block out certain days or hours when you want to restrict their use.
Limit access to programs.
You can block your child from running certain programs, such as file-sharing programs through which they might illegally download music and movies.
It is possible, depending on the program, to literally monitor your child’s every action on the computer, including emails sent and received, instant messaging (IM) conversations, and web sites visited.
How to set up parental controls
Both the Microsoft and Mac operating system parental controls are set up so kids have individual accounts. You can adjust the controls to the appropriate age level of each child in the family.
To turn on the parental controls on Microsoft Vista, click the Start button, then click Control Panel. Under User Accounts, click Set Up Parental Controls. You’ll need to make sure your child has a standard user account set up before you enable the controls.
On the Mac system, your child will also need an account. Then, click on System Preferences, then Accounts. Click on the account, then click the checkbox next to Enable Parental Controls. You can open the Parental Controls to set the configurations you want.
When it comes to parental controls, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of options available in the numerous filters available. So, it’s important to evaluate just what functions are most important to you, how you feel about your child’s privacy and how much time you want to invest in monitoring your child’s online activities, say the experts. For example, some programs can be so restrictive that kids might not be able to access what would actually be useful facts on medical topics. Or if you’re at work and your child needs to do schoolwork after school before you come home, it may be impossible without you present.
After you’ve inventoried how you want to direct your child’s experience, it might be helpful to visit the Internet Education Foundation’s (IEF) GetNetWise web site. The non-profit organization, an alliance of Internet industry corporations and public interest groups, offers a database that lets you check off the functions you want in a software filter, then matches your selections with one of 75 to 100 commercial products, says Ali Rodway, program direction for the IEF.
Filters are no silver bullet
Of course, no matter the filter, no set of controls is likely to be completely kid-proof, says Rodway. “There is no silver bullet. There is not one product or one method that will keep your kid safe. Today’s kids are smart. They are very tech-savvy.’’
One California mother, who asks not to be identified, was chagrinned to find her young teenage son frequenting sites with pornography. She now makes sure her son uses the computer in a family area of the home. “We use the filter of observation and lack of privacy,’’ she says. But the son also knows his parents track the history of every web site he visits.
Educating your child about safe and smart online practices is just as important as using some form of parental control software, says Teixeira. Kids often have access to the Internet away from parental supervision, whether it’s on cell phones, their friends’ computers or at cafés.
“I would use a combination of technology and education,’’ he says. “Technology is not going to be able to solve everything. At some point, you need to be streetwise, or cyberwise.’’
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