Internet filters have their place, but not for all kids

by Larry Magid

Internet filters have been around since the early days of the Web and they can play an important role in preventing young children from accessing inappropriate content. But they’re not a replacement for parental involvements — and they’re not for everyone.

Before installing and configuring a filter, parents need to decide if their child needs to have software controlling how they can use the Internet and, if so, how the filter should be configured.

I don’t recommend routine use of filters for teens, especially high-schoolers. For one thing, there are lots of ways for them to get around filters, including accessing the Web from their cell phones, game consoles or other people’s PCs. And since teens are on a fast path to becoming young adults, it’s better to help them develop the filter that runs between their ears. You can’t protect them forever, so help them learn self-control. Of course, there are always exceptions, and some teens do need extra supervision.

Filters can be a convenient way to keep young children from stumbling onto material that might gross them out or disturb them. Young children generally seek out a limited number of sites, but it’s certainly possible for them to stumble onto inappropriate ones.

Seemingly innocent search terms can sometimes bring up inappropriate sites. But rather than install filters on your computer, you might consider configuring the search engine your child uses.

Google, for example, offers a “search settings” option in the upper-right corner of its main page. Click on that and select either “strict filtering” or “moderate filtering” (the default). Strict filtering, which I recommend for young children, filters both explicit text and images. Just below the setting is an option to lock safe search so kids can’t easily turn it off for that browser. Be aware, however, that the lock is browser-specific.

Microsoft’s Bing.com also has a preferences section in the upper-right corner with similar controls. Yahoo allows you to configure its filters if you’re signed in with a Yahoo account.

My safety Web site, SafeKids.com, has a search page that’s locked into Google’s strict safe search. But no safe search option is foolproof. You still need to keep an eye on young kids when they’re online.

Microsoft Windows 7 doesn’t comes with a Web filtering feature, but it has controls that let parents limit when and how long their kids use the computer and to specify which programs kids can run. To use this, you need to create a Windows account for your child, and Microsoft recommends you password-protect your own account so only you can configure your child’s account.

The “time limits” option puts up a grid that lets you drag your mouse over certain hours of specific days that you wish to block. You can also turn on “allow and block specific programs,” which blocks all programs until you approve them. Another option allows you to block or allow games.

Although it’s not built into Windows 7, Microsoft has a free Web filter that works with Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. Microsoft’s Family Safety program doesn’t give you a lot of granular control over the types of sites your kids can use but it does let you choose between “strict” (which blocks all but child-friendly sites and sites you’ve allowed), “basic” (which blocks adult content) and “custom” (which lets you turn on or off a few categories, including social networking and Web mail.)

Symantec offers a more robust free program called OnlineFamily.Norton, which works with both Macs and PCs. This software gives you a great deal more control over the types of sites you kids can visit and allows you to create a separate profile for each child with recommended settings based on age.

If you already have a security suite, check to see if it includes filtering. TrendMicro Internet Security Pro, for example, includes a highly configurable Web filter. Also check with your Internet service provider to see if it offers a free Web filter.

Filters and other tools are not a substitute for parenting. Regardless of your child’s age and whether or not you use a filter, you should still check in with your kids regularly about how they use the Internet, their cell phones, game consoles and other technology.

When it comes to such issues as time online or obsessive use of the Internet or texting, remember that how you act is often more powerful than what you say. Kids learn by watching and if they see you constantly on the phone or online, they might wind up emulating your behavior.

Resources:
Parental Control & Online Child Protection: An excellent and very thorough review of parental control tools by Adam Thierer, president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation

ConnectSafely.org:  News, tips and commentary on all aspects of Internet safety, especially as it applies to the interactive “social” web.  (Disclosure, the author of this article is co-director of ConnectSafely)

GetNetWise.org: Excellent resources on Internet safety

This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

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