Free Software Can Keep Kids Safer Online
It's a rare parent who hasn't thought about installing filtering or monitoring software on the family computer. It's an even rarer parent who isn't confused by the many choices and doesn't resent the cost. "Youth Safety on a Living Internet," a recent report from the government's Online Safety and Technology Group, acknowledges that parents face a bewildering variety of product choices. While many commercial products have established reputations for effectiveness, now parents can find free parental controls, if you know where to look.
The kind of tool you need depends on your child's age and temperament. Filtering limits access to various aspects of the Internet, minimizing the risk that kids will encounter people or places they are too young to handle. Parents can choose to filter by pointing children toward specific websites they know are family-friendly, or they can depend on software that screens out sites that are decidedly not for kids.
Older children need to learn how to make responsible decisions online. While they are in training, parents may want to use accountability software that provides detailed information about what a child does online. Used surreptitiously as "spyware," this kind of software can disrupt trust between parent and child, so parents should explain what kind of monitoring they plan to do and why. Just like curfews, the level of monitoring should be adjusted as the child demonstrates maturity.
Parental control software that you purchase may have a wider range of features, but for parents who know what they need, the following programs offer reliable service at the unbeatable price of free — or close to it. Just keep in mind that a child with an Internet-enabled cell phone can circumvent any controls installed on the home computer.
Toddler Keys was written by a dad to protect his computer from very little hands. The program allows you to lock the keyboard, power buttons, CD drives and mouse. If a curious little person presses a key, he or she gets sounds and pictures but no access to files or programs. (Like other programs on this list, Toddler Keys can be downloaded with confidence from http://download.cnet.com. Just search for the name of the program.)
KidSurf (www.kid-surf.com) isn't quite free. After the initial trial, it costs $5.99, but that modest price may be worth it for parents of kids under 8. The program creates a simple but appealing interface for the Internet. You choose the sites your child can visit, and the program blocks everything else including pop-ups and links. There's also a timer so you can decide when online time is over.
Parental Control Bar (www.parentalcontrolbar.org) is made available by a nonprofit agency. Once installed, it filters websites to be sure they are kid-friendly. You can easily modify the list to block or approve different sites. A button makes it easy for a person who knows the password to flip from child to parent mode.
K9 Web Protection (www.k9webprotection.com) is provided free by Bluecoat, a company that specializes in corporate Internet security. The program for parents offers a checklist to block content in 60 categories. Instead of downloading the database, which might slow computer performance, the program gives you access to a "cloud" where the database is constantly being updated. One drawback: There is no child mode, so once a site is blocked, no one in the family can visit it.
Kidlogger (www.rohos.com/kid-logger) records keystrokes so you can see what websites your child has visited, who he chatted with, what documents he opened and what pictures he viewed. The program can create different logs for different users and includes a screen-capture feature. Simply telling your child you've installed the software is an inexpensive way to infuse conscience into computing.
Windows Live Family Safety (http://explore.live.com/windows-live-family-safety) is ideal for families that use Messenger, Hotmail and other Windows features. In addition to three pre-set levels of filtering, parents can block or allow specific websites. Parents can also restrict conversations so kids can only communicate with people on an approved buddy list.
Imsafer (www.imsafer.com) uses a language analysis program that understands English and the acronyms typical of chat and instant messaging. It keeps track of both sides of online conversations and sends you an alert if your child strays into territory that is sexual or threatening.
Norton Online Family (https://onlinefamily.norton.com) is by far the most sophisticated of the free programs. Norton sells cutting-edge technology for Internet security. Its free family software makes it easy to monitor websites your child visits and block unacceptable ones. Just as useful, the program lets you monitor chat and searches and gives you a limited window into your child's social networking habits. Perhaps most important, the website offers valuable advice about how to talk to your child about online activities, as well as up-to-date insight into what kids are actually doing online and a community where parents can share their experiences.
Norton's take-away message is that, in the end, the only way to really know about your child's online experience is to talk to your child. Still, it's comforting to know that parents now have access to free tools that help keep kids safe online.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.