Child proofing your Internet-enabled gadgets

In this edition of Ask Maggie find out how you can make that iPod touch or new computer safer for your kids to use.

More and more parents are giving their kids tablets, game consoles, laptops, and other Internet-connected devices as special holiday gifts. But how do you keep Junior safe as he's downloading apps, playing games online and exploring the World Wide Web?

Putting the iPod Touch on lock-down

Dear Maggie,
My 10-year-old daughter wants an iPod Touch for Christmas. I'm sure it's because all of her friends have one and are playing games and other apps on it. But I am nervous about getting her one. I trust her, but I do not think she needs all of the technologies that come on an iPod Touch. I really do not want the outside world getting in touch with her! Is there some type of other technology or device I can get her so she can play apps and at the same time not have a Skype phone, camera, video, GPS, etc.? I feel so old school, but I do not think a 10-year-old needs to be texting, etc!!! All and any advice would really be helpful!

Thanks,
Paula

Dear Paula,
I think you are absolutely right that a 10-year-old doesn't need instant access to the Internet at all times on her iPod Touch. But as you allude to in your question, it's getting harder for parents to find gadgets for their kids that aren't connected to the Internet. I've got some news for you. There are ways to turn the iPod Touch into a safe device for a child. But it will require you to make a few changes to the settings on the device.

Apple does a pretty good job of offering parental controls on all its iOS devices, so that you can restrict Internet access. For example, even though you can't shut off the Wi-Fi radio as part of the parental control setting, you can block the use of the Safari Internet browser. You can restrict access to YouTube. And you can disable app downloads on the device, so that she can't install a texting app or Skype or any other app that you think is inappropriate.

Still, I want to note that you will not be able to completely turn off the Wi-Fi radio on the iPod Touch through these parental controls. You can turn off the Wi-Fi radio in the settings, but that these settings are not passcode protected, so your daughter could easily turn on the Wi-Fi radio.

If you don't want her to have access to Wi-Fi at all, another option for you is to put a password on your home Wi-Fi router. (And don't let her know what that password is.) That way she won't be able to connect to the Internet from her iPod Touch while she is in the house. But this doesn't solve the problem for when your daughter takes her iPod Touch to a friend's house, where that family is likely to have Wi-Fi.

Still, with the parental controls enabled, you can lock-down the iPod Touch enough so that your daughter doesn't turn her iPod Touch into a Skype-phone or texting device.

Setting up the restrictions is easy, too. They can be accessed right on the device. All you need to do is to set up a 4-digit passcode. (Make sure your daughter doesn't know it.) Then you go into Settings > General > Restrictions, and you enter a four-digit passcode. And finally, you can click on different options to restrict access to:

  • iPod songs with explicit lyrics
  • Safari
  • YouTube
  • iTunes
  • Installing Apps
  • In-app purchases
  • Camera

While the parental controls are helpful if you want to completely turn off a lot of settings, they aren't as useful if you still want to provide access but you'd rather filter inappropriate content. Apple's parental controls are generally an all-or-nothing type of setting. So if you restrict access to the Safari browser or YouTube, your daughter won't be able to access those things at all. This might be fine now. But as she gets older, you may want to allow her more freedom. And that is where things get a bit more tricky. Parents may want to enable more functionality, but they still want to ensure their children aren't accessing inappropriate content or apps.

Luckily, there are several apps that can help you monitor your daughter's browsing and usage on her iPod Touch, if you ever feel like you want to allow her a bit more freedom. Mobicip Safe Browser is a popular Web filter. It can be downloaded from the App Store for $4.99 and it's used instead of the Safari browser on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. It's basically a browser that filters Web content to ensure it's safe for your daughter. iRover Surf Safe is another app that offers similar functionality. And there are many more.

But keep in mind that that filtering software isn't perfect. And some apps are better than others, so make sure you read user reviews before you buy one. I personally have not tested a lot of these apps, so I can't recommend specific ones, but doing a Google search should provide you with some options. Some reviewers of the Mobicip app complain that the app doesn't always filter out inappropriate sites, but it may filter out pages that are perfectly fine.

I think with the appropriate parental restrictions in place, your daughter will still be able to enjoy listening to music, playing games and using other apps on her device.

Good luck! And happy holidays!

Internet saftey first

Dear Maggie,
We are probably getting our kids computers this year. We have waited and held off, but it is becoming something they actually need for school. They are 10 years old and 8 years old. Do you have any advice about which laptops/Internet programs can help keep us in good shape. To think of them out there in Internet land all alone is frightening!

Thanks,
Cecily

Dear Cecily,
My first bit of advice is not to get a laptop for each of your kids. I'm not sure if that is something that the school is requiring or not. But they seem a bit young to own their own laptops.

I think your family might be better served with a single computer that everyone shares. And it shouldn't be a laptop that can be carried into someone's room. Most parenting experts say it's important to make sure children's online time is out in the open, where you can physically keep an eye on what's on the screen. If you give them laptops, it's harder to do that.

Anyway, I would invest in a nice desktop computer that you can put in a part of your house where there is more opportunity for adult supervision. You may not want it in the family room where others may be watching TV, but a den or office is fine so long as it's a place where you or another parent is frequently around. The idea is that you want to see what your kids are doing online. And the best way to do that is to have them doing it in front of you.

Also, if you just have one computer that the entire family uses, it's easier for you to manage. You will only have to install and use parental control software on one computer. And you'll only have to check browsing history on one computer.

As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, Apple does a nice job with parental controls on its iOS products. And it also offers similar controls on its Mac computers. Each family member can get an "account" for the computer, so everyone signs in as an individual. And then you can customize access for each account, restricting what time of day each person can use the computer as well limiting what he or she can do once on the computer.

The nice thing about Macs is that if you live near an Apple store it's very easy to get help. So if you need some extra help with the parental controls, you can go to the store and ask someone or sign up for a class.

But Macs are expensive. So if you want more bang for your buck, a Windows PC is probably a better deal. And like the Mac, Windows-based PCs also have plenty of parental controls built-in. In Windows 7, you can limit how much computer time your children have, as well as which programs and games they can use (and perhaps more importantly, when). With the Parental Controls in Windows Media Center, you can also block access to objectionable TV shows and movies.

If you feel you need more granular tools for your PC or Mac, there are lots of software packages that you can download that can help you manage and monitor your kids' Internet usage. My CNET Reviews colleague Seth Rosenblatt recommends Norton's OnlineFamily.Norton software. In his review of the product a couple of years ago he said:

There's a wide range of control over what sites a child can access. The restrictions can vary from a strict no-access policy that can block specific sites and site categories, to a more lenient notification e-mail sent to the parents when the child visits sites that parents merely want to be warned about. On the child's side, kids are given the option of e-mailing their parents when they're blocked--if the parents allow those e-mails in the first place.

He also explained that the software offers "House Rules" that "can be customized to suit the needs of individual children within each family, a useful feature since a teenager will have different browsing and social-networking interests than an 8-year-old."

Norton isn't the only such software available. There is also Net Nanny and SocialGuard from ZoneAlarm, among many others.

Seth also added that most paid security suites, such those from Kaspersky, Norton, and BitDefender, will include at least basic parental controls.

"I tend to advise people that if you've already got a paid security option on your computer, it's best to simply activate the parental control module," he said. "The top-shelf suites do not cause performance hits on your computer they way they did five or 10 years ago."

I hope this was helpful. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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