We all want to be good parents and protect our kids, and there’s a fine line between that and being overprotective. It’s especially hard to grant increasing freedom, given that we know that there are bad things, and bad people, out there, and especially on the Internet. How do you balance freedom with protection? In general, a good non-technology control is simply to have the computer used by the kids in a common area, where the parents can oversee what they’re doing. While this is workable for younger kids, as they get older this gets harder to implement, and it’s hard as busy working parents to stand over them. Here are some ideas, that I find (and I hope you will) allow that balance to take place. If you have other solutions (short of taking away the computer – you know how long that will work), I’d be thrilled to hear about them.
1. Norton Online Family: https://onlinefamily.norton.com/
Install this on your Windows and Mac computers – it’s free. This lets you not only determine age appropriate web sites and categories – you can limit a child to see only the sites you have pre-approved — but it can be used to monitor instant message conversations to prevent a child from sharing information such as address or phone or name, and also allows you to ‘white list’ who the child can IM with. If the kid wants to see something, they can ask for permission and the request appears in your e-mail, as well as notification of any attempts to go to sites not approved. Even better, you can use this to limit the amount of time spent on the computer, by weekdays or weekends. The limit is that this is not available for devices like Nintendo or iPod Touches, so with those you have to use the parental controls to block web access altogether, or use the next tool, OpenDNS.
2. OpenDNS: http://www.opendns.com
Another solution to content control (which I also use) is OpenDNS. You put their DNS addresses into your router instead of the ones supplied by your internet provider. This lets you block content because they provide a means to select the appropriateness and types of sites your network can reach, as well as blocking (or allowing) specific sites. This works for your whole network so will help reduce what can be seen on portable devices.
3. Firefox and Add-ons
You should be using Firefox as your browser, because it is much less prone to picking up nasty viruses and stuff from the Internet. Better, you don’t have windows suddenly opening and advertising appearing that really isn’t appropriate for kids. In addition, with some add-ons, you can supplement the other measures you have got in place:
- Adblock – this is an addon for Firefox I view as essential. It stops most banner ads from appearing, as they are advertising stuff that is unrelated to the actual site, and can actually be quite inappropriate. It’s often these ads that are the source of tracking cookies, malicious software or links to other inappropriate content.
- KidZui – free and commercial service for more features, this access a kid-oriented site that is good for kids 3-12. They provide access to videos that are pre-screened, and communications are structured and limited.
There are a couple parental control add-ons, such as FoxFilter, that you can install from Firefox’s Addons, which allow you even tighter control – you can ‘white list’ sites so that the browser can only go to them (and changing it requires a password). Others utilize services, sometimes for fees, that help automate blacklisting (blocking sites you identify) or whitelisting (allowing access to only sites you permit).
I use Zoobuh (www.zoobuh.com) for my kids’ e-mailing. It costs $25 per year for both kids, but it also uses a ‘white list’ approach. Only people I have approved can e-mail the kids; there’s a complete log kept and I get reports of anything out of the ordinary. Spam and people not in the approved contacts generate an e-mail to my e-mail account, and I can always see the e-mails in their inboxes. The limit here is it’s browser based, and won’t work on an iPod (a source of bitter complaint ).
5. Things to do on the computers:
- Google search: You can set Google Search to be ‘safe mode’ (meaning it will block adult content). You have to do this ‘by profile’ on each computer in the house.
- Youtube: rude comments and inappropriate links appear in normal otherwise innocent videos. Videos which have innocent names but are not at all what they are named – you would be surprised what people put up and call ‘Muppets’ videos. There is no real effective content control, and my content-filtering techniques work only for text, not sound or video. I would recommend blocking this altogether. Flixxy (www.flixy.com) seems to be a place where there are ‘safe’ videos for office and family.
- A computer-based firewall: You should of course have a firewall, but I’ve gone quite a bit further and set up a computer to block content based on the nature of what’s actually on the web pages. I use IPFire (www.ipfire.org) as this gives me quite a few more advanced features, such as intrusion detection, traffic monitoring and control, but most importantly, content-filtering. It takes a dedicated computer and a bit of effort to set up, but I think it’s incredibly worthwhile for the safe of more security for your network and the ability to block web pages either on black lists, or even the ‘naughtiness’ of the language on the page.