Parents' concerns about the amount of time their children spend on computers and the content they may encounter online have spawned an industry of computer monitoring and blocking products.
A Variety of Tools Can Help You Monitor Your Kids' Screen Time
By Lauren Gibbons Paul
Kids on the Internet: e-mailing, instant messaging and surfing the Web for games, chat rooms, music and “cool” sites. It’s all part of daily life for many of today’s children.
And while computers and the Internet are terrific learning resources for children, parents also have plenty to worry about when it comes to this technology: from fears about children’s access to online pornography – or, worse, potential sexual abusers’ access to kids – to concerns about how marketers target children online. Parents fret about how much time their kids spend at the computer and how they represent themselves in e-mails, chat rooms or instant messages (IM).
Then there are the unwanted consequences of unsafe surfing – viruses, spyware and spam – digital nuisances or rogue programs that can bog down or corrupt your computer.
In the United States, 87 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 – that’s 21 million teenagers – now use the Internet. Of these teen Internet users:
• 51 percent say they go online every day.
• About 17 million play games online.
•16 million read the news online.
• 9 million shop online.
• 6 million use the Internet to get health information.
: Verdana;">Fortunately, even with this significant use of Internet technology, teens still report that they spend more face-to-face social time with their friends than they do interacting with them online. The average teen reports spending 10.3 hours per week with friends in social activities outside of school and about 7.8 hours communicating with friends by phone, email, IM or text messaging.
: Verdana;">– Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project report issued in July 2005; based on telephone interviews in late 2004 with 1,100 parent-teen pairs.
: Verdana;">The Internet is an incredible resource, with educational and communication rewards for your kids. But concerns about the dark side of this technology have reached as high as Congress and spawned an industry of products aimed at blocking, monitoring and/or limiting children’s access to damaging stretches of the Information Superhighway.
: Verdana;">If you’re worried about risks associated with your kids’ computer use, shop around. You’ll find everything from Web filters and PC time monitors to keystroke loggers and surveillance software. The trouble is, the many types of helpful products out there present an overwhelming number of options for parents.
Sifting Through Your Options
: Verdana;">Andreae Downs, a mother of two girls, 10 and 12, does not have Web filters or monitors in place on the computers in her household. But she’d “love to know more,” she says. Downs does have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, which regularly identifies undesirable code picked up when her girls surf sites like Neopets.com and Barbie.com.
: Verdana;">Like many families, Downs and her husband have worked out some commonsense Internet-use policies (such as limiting recreational computer use to a half hour on school nights), but she can’t get over the nagging feeling that she should be doing more.
: Verdana;">In fact, parents of adolescents and teens probably need to employ different types of protective technology, asserts Parry Aftab, a noted Internet privacy and security lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit online safety, education and help group. Some parents are reluctant to install a filter or monitor on the family computer, preferring to rely on active involvement and interaction with their kids. But basic good parenting won’t necessarily shield your children from the worst of the online world.
“People are using technology to get to kids. We have to use technology to protect them,” Aftab asserts.
Here’s a guide to the different types of products that can help you block troublesome online content and monitor kids’ computer use.
Anti-Virus, Anti-Spam and Anti-Spyware Programs – By now, most adults know enough to have an anti-virus product, such as Norton Anti-Virus or McAfee VirusScan, installed on their home computers. That’s a good start, since these will keep out most viruses, provided that you download the updates to the software on a regular basis. But if you have children ages 6 and up who like to play games on the Internet, you probably also need an anti-spyware product.
Downloading popular children’s games often results in unwanted tracking software and other code finding a home on your computer. This code can do everything from track your movements on the Internet to make it impossible to surf anything but porn or gambling sites. Programs such as ParetoLogic Inc.’s XoftSpy and Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware will scan your files and flag any nasty items for destruction. You can get free versions of this software, but it’s worth buying one in order to get the version that runs unobtrusively in the background and automatically updates itself.
Firewall – If you’ve purchased a wireless router recently, chances are you already have a firewall in place (though it may not be configured properly). If not, you should buy a hardware firewall (that is, a physical appliance as opposed to a software-based one) to block unauthorized outsiders from accessing your computer or network. This will protect against malicious outsider attacks on your computer.
If you think it’s pretty far-fetched that anyone would target your specific computer, think again. According to Aftab, boys as young as 10 are notorious for targeting friends’ and acquaintances’ computers with “Trojan Horses” and other malicious programs or codes they create themselves once they have Internet access.
“Boys are always sending each other hacking attacks,” says Aftab.
|Tips for the Real World|
px; font-family: Verdana;">Software tools will help you prevent the wrong type of information from reaching your kids during computer time, but you also need to remain vigilant, as well. Consider these tips for monitoring your children’s computer use:
px; font-family: Verdana;">• Keep the children’s computer in a common area. This is a very effective way to keep tabs on what kids are doing and how they’re communicating via computer.
px; font-family: Verdana;">• Implement commonsense Internet usage limits and follow through with whatever policy you have adopted. Taking away computer privileges is an effective consequence for a child who breaks the rules.
px; font-family: Verdana;">• Stay on the lookout for anything suspicious. If your child immediately switches to another screen or minimizes the screen when you walk into the room, something may be going on. Investigate further. Learn how to access the computer’s Internet cookies and browser cache to find out where he or she has been.
px; font-family: Verdana;">• Talk with the parents of your children’s friends to learn whether your kids are accessing the Internet at their friends’ homes. Find out what rules or monitoring these parents have in place regarding computer usage. And talk regularly with your kids about their activities online, whether they’re in your home or someone else’s.
px; font-family: Verdana;">Web Site Filter – Parents of very young children often use a product like CYBERsitter from Solid Oak Software Inc. or Net Nanny (both of which have other monitoring capabilities too) to limit their kids’ Web surfing to four or five pre-vetted sites (a child-friendly search engine or portal such as Yahooligans!, for example). That works until the child gets older (say 8 to 10 years old) and needs wider Internet access for homework assignments.
px; font-family: Verdana;">At that point, the best approach may be to block access to certain sites and types of content, while allowing access to everything else. Your internet service provider (ISP) is a good place to start. MSN and AOL both have good, easy-to-use parental controls.
“You can enter your child’s age, and they have their own algorithm for limiting access to certain sites,” says Ted Werth, president and founder of PlumChoice Computer Help, which helps parents set up the Internet controls they need. PlumChoice is an online computer support company with customers worldwide. Many of its customers are parents, who consult with PlumChoice’s online experts to walk them through setting up Internet filters and monitors.
And ease of use is the most important criterion for any Web monitoring or filtering product, Werth says. “It’s like sitting down in the cockpit of an airplane. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s completely overwhelming.”
Monitoring/Surveillance Software – Aftab used to believe that monitoring kids’ online activities via an automated product was spying. Not anymore.
“Now I think we don’t have a shot at keeping our kids safe without it,” she says, referring to the various risks children surfing the Web can encounter – even unwittingly. She recommends that parents tell their kids about the monitoring (and why it’s necessary), turn it on and forget about it, rather than obsessing over a child’s every keystroke.
“It’s like a security camera in the corner of a bank. You don’t look at it unless there is a reason,” says Aftab. Especially with older children and teens, parents need to balance the child’s privacy needs against the parent’s need to protect. Aftab suggests that you put the monitor in place and not review the logs unless there’s a concrete reason to do so.
If your child or teen has given you cause for alarm, then you can program a remote monitoring product, such as eBlaster from SensorSoft Corp. to send you an e-mail (or an IM or a page) if certain things happen (such as your child IM’ing or chatting with a forbidden person). With tools such as eBlaster and the Parental Control Suite from ExploreAnywhere Software, you can monitor IM conversations, e-mails, changes made to the hard disk or external media (such as burning a CD), application activities, Internet sites visited, keystrokes – the list goes on.
Should you need it, these products, ranging in cost from $50 to $100, will tell you everything you need to know about where they’re going, what they’re doing and who they’re interacting with.
PC-Time Managers – Sometimes the worst abuse comes not from the Internet, but from the child’s overuse of the computer. For many children, the PC has replaced the TV as their chief form of entertainment. Online time can stretch to eight or more hours per day. For this type of offender, you need a PC time manager like Family Safe Media’s PC TimeCop. This programs let you control how much access a particular user can have in a given day, week or month. You can also restrict access to certain applications while retaining access to others (always handy in the case of homework).
Dozens of Web sites and publications offer parents advice on which products to use to keep their children safe online. Here are a couple of good ones:
• Child Safety on the Information Highway – Written by Lawrence Magid of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, this is an excellent guide to the kinds of inappropriate information that kids can access online, how parents should talk to their kids about using the Internet safely, and what kinds of rules and limits to put into place. Includes Online Safety Quiz for Preteens.
• WiredSafety.org – Run by Parry Aftab, this site is a wealth of information and advice for parents. Includes free Cyberbullying Toolkit.
Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer and mother of two.