WWW FAQs: How can I protect my kids on the Internet?

2006-10-19: Parents are understandably very concerned about risks to their children when they use the Internet. And there are serious dangers, especially when kids reveal personal information in online social environments. So I'll focus on that issue first.

Many parents are also concerned about inappropriate content on the Internet. Yes, there are inappropriate images and videos out there and yes, many sites are dedicated to these. But most people realize that censoring the entire Internet for adults is not the answer. I'll examine several approaches to this issue as well.

The Greatest Danger: Kids Disclosing Personal Information

In reality, seeing inappropriate material is not the greatest danger to kids online. The real threat comes from those who would take advantage of kids who naively reveal personal information about themselves. Rebellious preteens are especially at risk, because they may not take parental warnings seriously. Compared to the dangers that a child invites by sharing personal information online, such as their phone number or address, looking at inappropriate pictures is a relatively minor concern.
LiveJournal and MySpace are great things -- I personally enjoy LiveJournal -- and both sites have policies forbidding kids under sixteen from creating accounts. But as much as they'd like to, these sites don't have a magical way of knowing how old their users truly are. Take time to educate yourself about the websites you see in your child's browser history.

Your first concern when you allow your children to use the Internet should be educating them to keep their personal information private. Under no circumstances should your children ever give out their full name, phone number, or address on the Internet. Make sure your kids know that this applies even to their online friends -- and kids who have access to social networking sites, like LiveJournal and MySpace, will make online friends you don't know about. The same goes for kids who have unsupervised access to online chat rooms. Especially obscure, unmoderated chat rooms.

Protecting Kids from Inappropriate Material

Still, how can we effectively keep our kids from looking at inappropriate materials? There are five approaches: adult supervision, education, parental lists of approved sites, voluntary site ratings, and Internet filtering services. We recommend the first two whenever possible. The third is useful for young children. The fourth is occasionally helpful. The fifth is, basically, bad news -- especially for children over twelve.

I'll look at each of these five approaches in turn. Then I'll take a brief look at issues surrounding chat software and email, suggest an additional technical step to limit the damage that children can inadvertently do to the computer, and talk about the supervision of older children.

Adult Supervision

The first and best answer is adult supervision. All children, but especially the very young, should be supervised while browsing the Internet. Ideally, your child's computer should not be in their own bedroom, especially for very young children. My six-year-old daughter's computer is next to mine, in my home office. If she somehow wanders away from Sesame Street or Starfall and into something inappropriate, I'll know about it. That's a small price to pay for a few distracting repetitive theme songs!

The American Library Association offers an excellent collection of Internet browsing guidelines and tips for children and their parents.
When direct supervision isn't possible, you might consider checking out your child's browsing history. Yes, this is snooping, but as parents it is our responsibility to know what our children are up to. It's only fair to let your child know that you keep an eye on what they do on the computer, and I encourage you to do so. While they may not say so, most kids are relieved to know their parents are paying attention to their lives.

Bear in mind, however, that older children may learn how to clear their web browsing history. You can deal with this fairly easily: the first time it happens, you'll notice that the browser history only goes back one day. If that happens, sit down with your child and let them know that clearing the browser history is not allowed.

Educating Children About Appropriate Websites

Children can also be educated to understand what is appropriate and what is not, in an age-appropriate way. Make sure your kids know what is suitable for children and what is not. If your child comes to you with a question about an inappropriate website, be sure to thank them for asking you. If your children feel comfortable asking you questions about what they have seen on the Internet, you will be able to help them avoid inappropriate content on their own.

Parentally Approved Sites

It's possible to configure Microsoft Internet Explorer so that only the sites you have approved can be visited. This is not a useful technique for teenagers who need to do research for school, because they need to access too many sites. And a determined teenager can find a way to disable or work around it.

But for very young children with a short list of suitable websites, it's an excellent way to keep them from accidentally stumbling onto inappropriate sites. So if this approach appeals to you, check out my article how do I restrict access to Internet Explorer so that only certain sites can be visited?

Voluntary Website Ratings

There is a voluntary website rating system, called the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA, formerly RSACi). Support for it is built into Microsoft Internet Explorer. Turning on this feature in Internet Explorer allows you to block access to websites that voluntarily identify themselves as adult-oriented. This system has the big advantage that age-appropriate content is never accidentally (or deliberately!) filtered out.

Can I have separate Internet Content Advisor settings for different users?

Unfortunately, no. Instead, you must use a supervisor password to gain access to each blocked site, on a case-by-case basis.
Warning: many, possibly most "adult" sites unfortunately do not participate in voluntary rating systems. It's an economic issue: when such sites voluntarily identify themselves, they run the risk of being filtered out of adult environments too. Many in the industry feel that the opposite system is preferable: child-oriented sites specifically identifying themselves. Unfortunately, that's not how things currently work.

You can configure Internet Explorer to exclude some adult-oriented web sites by following these steps:

1. Access the "Tools" menu.
2. Select "Internet Options."
3. Select the "Content" tab.
4. Select "Content Advisor."
5. Click "Enable."
6. Use the "Ratings" options to decide what sort of content you want to allow this computer to see.

Viewing Blocked Sites (For Moms and Dads)

Naturally, you'll sometimes want to temporarily turn content advisor off so that you can view blocked material - or to help your child view material that has been incorrectly blocked, such as a web site with age-appropriate information about human anatomy or sexuality. To do this, you'll need to set a supervisor password:

1. Return to "Content Advisor" on the "Content" tab of "Internet Options," if you're not already there.

2. Under "Supervisor password," click "Create Password."

3. Enter the same password twice, and provide a password-reminder hint you can remember - something you know, but your kids don't. Lost Content Advisor passwords are a pain, so choose a password you will not forget.

4. Click "OK."

Content Advisor Is Not Perfect

Bear in mind that older children may learn how to disable this feature. It's important that you regularly check your child's browser history. Because this rating system is voluntary, it does not block all or even most inappropriate sites. So don't jump to the conclusion that your child has deliberately turned the ratings feature on and off! If you're really concerned, supervise your kids.

Internet Filtering Software

For years, software has been available to aggressively filter your child's web browsing habits. These programs don't wait for sites to voluntarily identify themselves. getnetwise.org offers pointers to some of these programs. Unfortunately, most filtering software incorrectly filters out websites that are not inappropriate. Some programs will even filter out political sites that the authors of those programs don't approve of. For this reason, I don't recommend such filtering software, especially for older children. A seventeen-year-old trying to write a report for a civics class shouldn't be blocked from reading websites about controversial issues in the news!

Technically speaking, the best product of this kind is probably Cyber Patrol. It works with both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and allows separate settings for separate users. However, critics have taken issue with the way Cyber Patrol decides what to block.

Chat Rooms and Chat Software

Don't ever let your kids use online chat software without supervision. Of course, AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) or Yahoo chats with friends and family you know are OK -- learn the instant messaging account names of your child's friends. Let your child know that online chat requests from strangers are never welcome. Yes, your child might be chatting on a mainstream service like AOL Instant Messenger - but if they are talking to a stranger, they are still in danger!
This can't be emphasized enough, but I'll try: An online predator chatting with your child is much, much more dangerous than looking at pornography!

Email Access

Kids naturally want to send email to their friends and family members. There's nothing wrong with that, but make sure your kids know to never give out their email addresses online. Collecting personal information online from kids under sixteen is illegal, but websites unfortunately have no way to be sure children aren't stretching the truth about their age.

Limited Accounts

Children (and adults!) often install unwanted software, even without meaning to. Kids and grownups alike may be taken in by claims that a program from an unknown company will "help speed up the computer" or even "remove spyware." And then you'll find yourself reading another article of mine: Why is my browser broken?

You can reduce the risk of this by giving your children limited accounts. Windows XP, MacOS X and Linux all offer ways to create separate accounts on the computer for each user. When used correctly, these features can prevent children from accidentally installing harmful programs that affect all users of the computer. For more information about how to do this with Windows XP, see Microsoft's to add a new user to the computer page. See also the types of user accounts page.

Unfortunately, Windows XP Home does not support limited accounts. All XP Home accounts have the privileges of an administrator. This is one of the areas where XP Professional is greatly superior to XP Home.
Macintosh users can find similar information on Apple's website. MacOS X offers ways to restrict the features that any particular user can access.

Some applications, including chat software and other tools you might want to restrict youthful access to, offer the option to install them only for specific users rather than for all users. Once you have limited accounts for your children, you can take advantage of this option to keep programs not suitable for them off the "Start" menu.

A Note About Older Children

When supervising the Internet habits of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, a lighter touch may be appropriate. Remember that these kids will be living as adults very shortly. A gradual loosening of Internet restrictions will help them to avoid the "kid in the candy store" problem when they go off to college, or another independent living situation, and suddenly gain unrestricted Internet access. The older your child is, the more important it becomes to educate them about responsible use of the Internet rather than relying purely on technical fixes. In the end, your child must learn to choose responsibly on his or her own.

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