Internet security: keeping kids safeLos Angeles Post-Examiner

Internet security: Keeping kids safe

The Internet is a vast trove of information, organized, categorized, and available mostly for free to all users. Google, far and away the most popular and easy to use search engine, turns in remarkably thorough results for search terms, even vaguely worded ones.

Many articles on sites describe the huge wealth of information on the Net, but  few mention the type of content that most parents are concerned their children might be sneaking looks at: pornography and life-like violent online games.

This forbidden fruit is widely disseminated and easily available to anyone who hasn’t taken steps to ensure this type of material is blocked from or avoided by young, curious eyes. Sure, you can set the safety level of your searches on Google, blocking access to most such sites, but it can be easily turned off by your kids, if the parents don’t exercise a modicum of attention. Both Microsoft and Apple offer similar filtering settings on their Internet connected devices, and offer the same levels of protection.

Young and Savvy

You can check your children’s browser history to see where they’ve been, but savvy young users, which nowadays describes most kids, can easily erase their browser history, leaving you none the wiser.

My youngest is very self-censoring. I’ve looked at her Internet connected devices and found that they all had their safety settings turned to the “on” position. But some sites have circumvented the filtering algorithms Google has installed and questionable material may slip through.

Kids OnlineBut this question should be examined in perspective. Companies that collect such data say that, percentage-wise, porn searches and sites have declined over the years as the Web has grown overall. This is because in the beginning most users were men, and porn search and viewing has declined as the total number of female users has grown to equal men.

But concerned parents should know that pornography sites have also grown apace, and though they may constitute a smaller percentage of all sites since early studies were conducted, they too have grown in absolute numbers.

And they’ve gotten tricky. They’ve bought up site names that are commonly misspelled non-porn sites, which contain links to their main content area.

Porn viewing by adults is a personal decision best left to the adult who is responsible for his or her own activities on the web. The only comment I will make regarding such use is a warning that many porn sites are loaded with booby-traps, viruses, Trojans and such malware that can render your phone or PC useless.

Protecting the Innocent

This column is aimed at parents who wish to keep such material out of reach of underage eyes, whether intentionally or accidentally accessed by their children.

First, Google’s safety settings are certainly effective, though not entirely foolproof. The safety settings are “off,” which employs no filters and anything works. “Moderate,” the recommended setting, excludes explicit images or video but even innocent search terms may return undesired content. “Strict” blocks all explicit images and video, as well as sites that contain links to such. But, as mentioned, children can easily change these settings, and even the “safe” setting may allow access to pornographic material to slip through the safety barrier.

Googlesafe_search-vu9egd (1)This being said, it should also be noted that those who operate pornography websites have little interest in attracting children to their material. This for the simple reason that they are looking for paying customers, and children are not likely to fall into this category.

For those parents who want to take monitoring their children’s web activity up a few notches,  I offer up a third party filtering program; one which, as most do, is controlled by a password held by the parent.

It is among the most effective because it monitors web usage in real time, which circumvents even tech-savvy young people from using work-arounds to disable content blocking software.

There are many such programs, some free, offered on a subscription basis, or for a one-time charge.

All You Need

Net Nanny is the most comprehensive and venerable of such programs. It is also the most highly recommended by parents and tech sites. In addition to blocking pornography, it protects against cyber bullying, online predators and social network dangers.

It not only contains a huge database of restricted sites, it features dynamic content filtering, setting off alarms in response to prohibited images on the screen. You, the parent, adjust the permissible settings. Parental controls allow the parent to set access by specific keywords, games and websites according to each user.

net-nanny1The program sends the parent an email when your child accesses inappropriate sites, and, lastly, it monitors your child’s posts and chats on Facebook. This prevents or alerts you to the use of triggering keywords, signalling approaches by adult predators or sexting by the child.

Net Nanny costs $39 a year.

If all this seems a bit Orwellian or creepy to you, I, as a parent myself, share your concerns. Net Nanny is rated No. 1 among such programs by USA Today, the New York Times, PC Magazine, and Time Magazine. Yet it requires extensive and imaginative set-up by parents, and assumes that your children, if not monitored by a software package, necessarily will indulge their supposed craving for pornographic material, or not recognize a potential predator, or will fall victim to attack by a cyber bully.

I’ve raised three children in the age of the Internet. I have never taken steps beyond setting browser controls to safe, and eschewed third party controls not because they’re ineffective but because I felt they were not necessary. I feel that the most effective parental control is the parents themselves. Trust is the key element in preventing inappropriate behavior on the Internet.

I’ve talked with my children about what is permissible and appropriate, and that I expect them to behave according to my advice. Maybe my kids are exceptional, but I’ve never had the problems Net Nanny is programmed to prevent. I trust them to be responsible, and I’ve been satisfied with the protection built in to the various operating systems, for computers and cellphones.

Net Nanny and its like are marketed to those parents who either don’t trust their children, or who feel they can abdicate or automate their roles as the ultimate arbiter of their children’s activities on the Web. I’m not saying that all children are amenable to parental guidance alone, I just believe that my own should be granted, on a conditional basis, the freedom to exercise their own judgment based on the guidelines I have personally provided them; with a sensible bit of help from the filtering settings offered by the manufacturers of their devices.

Parental Guidance

Just as a parent monitors their children’s TV viewing habits, or has final say over which movies they may or may not see, I use the same methods and criteria regarding their Internet activity. And it has worked well for me.

We have become a nanny nation in regard to child rearing. Look at their playgrounds–plastic, rounded edges on every corner with mulch spread everywhere to guarantee a safe landing. Remember the steel jungle gyms, monkey bars and swingsets of our youth? And don’t forget the gravel ground cover.

Internet-Safety-2Children often do not simply go out and play after school any longer. They attend play dates, attended by the watchful eyes of worried moms and dads. Or they are enrolled in structured activities centered on various interests or hobbies.

I am not, by any means, refuting the view that there are many dangerous or inappropriate images, games or videos rampant on the Web. But I believe parental supervision, tailored to each child’s potential for mischief, fosters the most desirable outcome for all concerned, and best prepares the child for the stormy conditions and decisions they will face on their own in their teen years and as young adults.

Dark Corners

The web can be a dangerous place for unprepared children. And some will, by their very nature, be drawn into these dark corners we wish them to avoid. Net Nanny and its like are indeed necessary in some cases, and certainly can’t hurt even for those parents who subscribe to my view. But I am not convinced that they should be the first line of defense against such dangers.

In my view, parental involvement and advice, and a bit of sensible tinkering with built-in settings, is the first and best step to keeping your child safe and protected on the Internet.

Parenting, however, by its very nature, is a singularly personal and highly individual role.

The point is that parents have a choice, an effective aide to protecting their children on the Internet. I do not mean to disparage any parent who uses child protection software. In fact, I’m making them aware of it so that they might make an informed decision on whether they feel it might help them and their children.


About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.
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