It's impossible to protect a child from every offensive Web site or spam e-mail, but Internet filtering tools can put some defenses at a parent's fingertips.
The need for parental controls for Internet activity varies, of course, with the age of the Web surfer. Teaching a kindergartener the ABCs of the Internet poses different challenges than preventing a teenager from posting his home address on a MySpace page. Those who use filtering tools also soon learn that they can benefit not only parents monitoring underage children, but also small businesses and even adult desktop users who may simply want to avoid viewing pornographic e-mail spam.
However, there can be a thin line between chaperoning a child's Internet usage and spying on every keystroke. Many Internet activity-monitoring programs allow a parent or system administrator to snoop unfettered. Critics of these services call them impractical and intrusive. After all, how many parents have the time or the will to read every word a child types and scrutinize every button clicked? Search engines and software that filter out potential adult content can also be problematic. Some are simply ineffective, while others aren't appropriately selective. A 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation study, for example, found some parental control software eliminated Web sites containing legitimate medical information and even controversial politics.
The following tools and guidelines can help parents keep adult content away from their children and prevent inappropriate contact with strangers.
When choosing an Internet service provider, consider whether it provides built-in parental controls or Web filtering tools. Nationwide providers offering such options include AOL and EarthLink. AOL provides its subscribers with a downloadable program that allows them to monitor and limit their children's Internet usage. AOL includes filters for e-mail contacts, instant-messaging chat contacts, and Web site content. Parents regularly receive "report card" e-mails logging their children's online activities.
EarthLink provides parental controls as part of its Total Protection toolbar, with no additional download required. The EarthLink features include online time limits, e-mail screening and a kid-safe Internet browser.
The Smart Limits controls available through AT&T Yahoo high-speed Internet and dial-up allow subscribers to filter Web searches, set time limits, and block access to instant messaging and other applications. Parents can read reports about a child's Internet surfing habits (and any attempts to subvert the controls) and specify whom their children can e-mail or chat with online. Kids can request parental "permission slips" if they want to reach content or contacts outside the normal limits.
Also, cable and broadband-service provider Comcast offers McAfee Internet Security software, which includes parental controls, for free to its subscribers.
Many home Internet routers can be configured to stop suspicious content before it reaches the computer. Some enable profiles for various family members and require that they log in individually for Internet access. However, router filters can be tricky to set up if they require the user to know the port numbers of Web sites and services to block or allow. Other routers may offer lists of content prescreened by the vendor or a third-party partner.
For $30 a year, the Netgear Super G Wireless Router Security Edition WGT624SC allows a household to restrict specific Web sites from individual users. ZyXel's HomeSafe Parental Control models cost around $60 and offer similar features. The $100 DLink SecureSpot Internet Security Device attaches to a wireless router and enables parents to set content, surfing time and software permissions for each child on four PCs; it also delivers usage reports. An annual subscription costs $80.
In addition to controlling what gets onto a home PC via the Internet or router, it's also possible to control the use of the home PC via its operating system. With the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft has included a suite of parental controls. A Web filter that works in conjunction with Windows Live OneCare Family Safety (currently in beta), offers a way to limit time spent on the Internet, to block games with certain content and an option to block access to certain programs.
The Mac OS has long provided parental controls. Its current release, Tiger, the Mac OS 10.4 operating system, goes further than Microsoft Windows Vista, allowing the parent to limit the overall system access available to a child by, for example, limiting access to the computer printer or by disabling the ability to burn a CD or DVD. The Mac allows filters for limiting e-mail and IM chat contacts, as well as access to specific to Web sites.
For Internet browser-specific blocking, choices are limited. The Firefox Web browser lacks built-in filtering capabilities. However, the free ProCon Predator extension for Firefox uses a white list of preapproved Web pages to steer children away from pornography and profanity. The Opera browser does not include parental controls, nor are add-ons for that feature available. Apple Safari, using the parental controls built into the Mac OS, can keep kids from visiting Web sites outside of a list of bookmarks chosen by parents. The same is true for Microsoft Internet Explorer 7's parental controls, which are part of the Windows Vista operating system. The Windows XP version of Internet Explorer 7 does not include parental controls.
Big players in Web 2.0 also offer tools built to exclude unsavory content. Google Safe Search filters out Web sites based upon Open Directory keywords and listings. For example, looking up "breast" retrieves more than 44 million results, most with medical information--although pornography is a couple of clicks away. A search for "censorship" finds 11 million links. Google's strict filtering setting, available via the search and preferences options, further restricts image searches. The SafeSearch options for Yahoo's and MSN's search tools are similar.
AOL at School offers colorful pages for various age groups. It shows 366 valid results for "breast," such as details about cancer and species of birds. Looking up "censorship" yields 76 articles about politics and culture. The Web search for Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, which accompanies the Microsoft Student 2007 homework helper, displays anatomical drawings and medical definitions for a "breast" search, with various articles about freedom of speech for "censorship."
The Yahoo Kids beta looks playful but includes animated advertising. It retrieves zero results for "breast" yet 317 items for "censorship." Using the peppy Fact Monster search, Ask for Kids returns 10 relevant, tame results for both terms.
Many small companies and organizations also provide filtered searches. Librarians run the KidsClick search engine. While looking for "breast" retrieves no content there, a search for "censorship" brings up the Web site for an anticensorship teen group plus a list of banned books. The Quintura for Kids beta search breaks down subjects into 600 categories and displays mature yet legitimate medical information for a search for "breast," yet no results for "censorship."
Finally, most Internet security suites now include parental controls. Many security vendors, however, are making parental controls optional, requiring additional downloads. These include Symantec Norton Internet Security and Norton 360, CA, and Trend Micro. Only McAfee and ZoneAlarm include parental controls as part of their Internet security suites.
While Web filters may block controversial content, services to monitor e-mail messages and instant messaging attempt to regulate whom a child may contact and how. The free IMSafer download notifies a parent when a kid's instant messaging includes suspicious terms in plain English and Net slang, without displaying the full contents of each chat session. Parents can network with each other and identify potential predators who have contacted their kids.
MySpace is working on software to enable parental monitoring. In the meantime, free monthly MySpaceWatch reports scan a child's MySpace profile and comments for content involving sexuality, drugs, curse words, and racism. The service also tells Mom or Dad how often a child logs in and maps where his or her friends are located. A $6-per-month Pro account crawls up to five profiles every six hours. For $80 per year, BeNetSafe keeps tabs on how kids use MySpace, Friendster and Xanga social networking sites. Parents can receive reports showing how a child's profile appears to the public and to the circle of friends. SafeSpacers anonymously monitors a boy's or girl's profiles and chats within MySpace for between $29.95 and $49.95 per month. Reports describe when a child might reveal too much personal data in a profile, picture or blog. Upon request, SafeSpacers' college-age coaches can contact the child and suggest how to make their social networking safer, without betraying a parent's involvement.