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My eldest child is at the age where she will start using the web for school work and general interest. What can I do to protect her from encountering inappropriate content, while browsing the web using our home computers? I'm open to any suggestions, not just technical ones.

Update: Encounters with inappropriate material can be caused by inadvertent actions or willful actions. I'm really looking for protection against inadvertent actions, e.g. looking up "wet willy". But I understand that protection against willful actions is best mitigated with eduction.

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Trust your child. If your child has no interest in inappropriate content then your child will just ignore those sites. Otherwise, there's basically no way that you can stop them, if they really want to. You'd only end up in a battle of wits, which is bad for your relationship with your child. –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 7:04
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Reminds me of when I worked at Best Buy and a mother asked me how to tell if her son was looking up inappropriate images on the internet. I asked her if her son was male. She said yes. I said "Based off the information you've told me, yes, your child is looking up inappropriate images on the internet. (The Best Buy employment manual phrases example questions this way) –  Grant Sep 24 '09 at 7:14
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Trust is all very well, but sometimes your child may be exposed to things even if they aren't actively looking for them. Some quite innocuous google searches can lead to surprising results and especially for small children it's better to filter rather than have to explain some of the concepts they might come across. –  Col Sep 24 '09 at 7:49
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@Col, while that's true, you can help your kids by installing a filter on voluntary basis, telling your child how to disable it again if it needs to be disabled. Furthermore, filters give false security but can't stop every case of inappropriate content without blocking much of the correct content. –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 8:27
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Biggest tip I can give is: never give them a computer in their own room. Always put the computer in a room where the rest of the family is present. –  KdgDev Sep 24 '09 at 8:42
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6 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Computer In Public Location

This is a little known trick to help curb less appropriate activities. Putting the computer in the living room, dining room, kitchen might seem absurd at first, but if you think about it, the vast majority of inappropriate activities occur when one feels they are alone with privacy.

Limit Computer Time

This will help keep your child from living a second life on the computer as they know they only have X amount of minutes on the computer and will prioritize their activities.

Computer User Account Permissions

You might also consider setting their computer logon account permissions such that they cannot install programs (like messengers, poker, online games, or other unwanted programs). It won't prevent your child from using online applications, but it will certainly make things less convient.

Monitoring Software

I hate to say it, but if you are really, really concerned, there is monitoring software to consider. Specter Pro has been the leader in this field for many years and can log keystrokes, web browsing, im history, emails, screenshot activity, and more.

Just Ask Child What They Are Doing

As a child one of the things that both worked the best was being constantly questioned about my online activities. As a parent passed by they might look over my shoulder, "Oh, what is that window there.", and inquiring about what it does, why I need it, and if it is appropriate. It can show the child that you are personally interested when they take an interest in new things (Perhaps the child answers that he is researching rockets!), and can allow the parent to sniff out and discourage bad things (Perhaps the child is talking to a stranger). This helps the child learn about what kinds of things are good and bad to be doing as they grow older and it will stick with them.

Two key themes in it all:

  • make bad behavior less convienient

  • take a personal involvement/interest in your child's activities

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Although I am no parent, and have no experience in sheltering children from the horrors of the internet, I do think you really do have to take two approaches to protecting your children

Education

Really, the first part is to teach your children about the internet. I do beleive it is wrong to just start filtering your children's internet without talking to them about it first. Tell them that, although it can be really helpful, good and fun, there are a lot of bad websites with wrong content on it. Teach your children how to be safe online and tell them:

  • When you are online, you should not really give out personal information of any kind
  • Not everything on the internet is true. Some people will go to great lengths to make people believe their lies
  • Don't download any files1
  • If you think a website is bad or wrong, get out of it straight away

And of course a couple of others.

I believe that education is the most important aspect of keeping your children safe online. Teach them how to behave on the internet, and what is right and wrong. There is no easier way to say "I don't trust you" to your children than filtering their internet without talking to them about why you are doing it (if you actually are).

1Mainly to prevent malicious software from installing itself on the computer. Depending on the age and 'smartness' of your child, you might want to also teach them how to search the internet properly (to avoid bogus results with virus downloads) and how to identify a malicious website.

Website Filtering

There are numerous filtering programs out there designed to keep track of the websites that are visited on your computer and to limit access to bad websites. The disadvantage of these is that you have to install them on each computer, which means they can just be uninstalled. An alternative to this is a network-based filtering system, such as OpenDNS.

OpenDNS Parental Controls divide the Internet's content into more than 50 categories. Simply choose your desired filtering level, from "High" to "Minimal," and check a box. Your filtering preferences take effect in just minutes. Further customize your preferences by adding additional categories or individual Web sites that are problematic or unsafe for your household.

OpenDNS Parental Controls, recommended by industry experts, require no appliance and setting up is a breeze.

The main advantage the OpenDNS internet filtering has is that it is simply a DNS server, which requires zero installation. Quite literally, you can set this up in 3 minutes.

You just enter the OpenDNS IP addresses into your network configuration on each computer, or enter them into your router to make your whole network connection 'protected'. For more details, check out the start guide at OpenDNS.com.

But remember, all filtering software can be bypassed and 'cracked' by anyone with enough determination and time (something which many kids have plenty of), so these filters must not be used or thought of as the be all and end all of internet safety. They rarely contain every single website in a given category that you wish to block.

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@joshhunt - interesting lead about OpenDNS' adult content blocking service. I noticed that I also need to install a service to inform O penDNS of changes to my dynamic IP address. I agree with you about importance educating kids about safe internet behaviour. –  Phillip Ngan Sep 24 '09 at 5:21
    
I wanted to give a +1 until I noticed the second part: installing a filter. That's something you definitely DON'T want. I'll explain in my answer. –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 6:39
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OpenDNS is an excellent service both for it's filtering uses and also because it is simply a better DNS service than ISP provided ones. As well as filtering it also allows you to log dns requests so you can also see what sites are being visited and spot ones that may be inadvisable but not covered by your filter settings. –  Col Sep 24 '09 at 7:46
    
Logging is useful, since it tells you what your child has been doing. Blocking is not useful since it just annoys your kid, who will try to discover how to get around the block. –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 8:28
    
Bear in mind that any halfway decent filtering service will have both false positives and false negatives. Your child may need to get to sites that are filtered out. Make sure that's possible. –  David Thornley Sep 24 '09 at 16:38
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While many people believe in the power of installing internet filters or whatever more, this is actually something that you definitely should NOT do! And yes, many people will call me crazy but as a parent it's a way to tell your child: "I don't trust what you do online!" which is something children don't want to hear. Only install a filter if the child wants one too and teach your child how to disable this filter again if the child ever needs to get around it.

The best thing you can do is the same as you can do when you let your child walk on the streets all by themselves: educate them as best as you can and don't try to avoid any topics that they might come up with, no matter how uncomfortable such topics will make you. (But feel free to explain that you feel uncomfortable about that topic.)

First of all, filters are unreliable. China has created the Big Firewall of China hoping to control the contents of the Internet within it's borders. They're failing miserably, no matter what they try because there are plenty of options to go around it. Myanmar even closed off all Internet connections within it's borders simply because of the civil disorder. They didn't want to have any images of political abuse leaving the country. They failed too, although they did manage to keep a lot hidden from the outside world.

If you tell your child not to visit porn sites or whatever, then your child can just obey or disobey your wish. When you install a filter then you will just encourage your child to find a way around this filter, if they really want to find porn online. A filter isn't going to stop them! Maybe they'll just go to a friends place, where the friend has no filter and thus unlimited access. Or maybe they'll visit a library, if the library has no filters. Or they find a way to disable your filter. Anyway, children are cunning enough to get what they want, if they really want to.

Also keep in mind that a filter might block too much, or too little. For example, this post might be blocked simply because it uses the word "porn". If that's no reason to block this post, words like "penis", "vagina", intercourse", "condom", "viagra" and "aids" might be enough to block these posts, even though these words would be common words for a medical site or even Wikipedia... (Btw, if your filter blocks this post, please raise your hand!)

But how do children respond to those "bad sites"? Well, if they were looking for it on purpose, they'll be happy. But when they're just browsing the Internet in search for something else, they just behave like most adult Internet users: take a peek out of curiosity and then just ignore it. Children who discover porn sites or sites containing pictures of mutilations and worse material might be upset at first but will soon learn to ignore it. By educating them how to ignore such sites and by teaching them what to do when they discover a bad site.

And finally, talk with your child about installing a filter and explain to them how they can disable it! This tells them that you trust them to do whatever they like and that the filter is there to help them, not to block them. If the filter is voluntary, your child will much more appreciate you for it. (And they won't try to disable it simply because they don't have to.)

People who try to educate children by restricting their options simply forget that if a child wants to do something, there isn't much that will stop them from doing so. Children aren't just home enough to control them 24/7. School will bring them in an environment where they can learn all the dirty tricks. And visiting friends will give them enough possibilities to do things without your knowledge. A filter won't stop them. At most, it will just annoy them.


The biggest problem with filters is that they give a false sense of security. People start to believe in a piece of software to do their parenting for them. This makes absolutely no sense! There are people who just install a filter, thinking their child is safe, while their child just goes visiting a friends place just to look at everything you've forbidden.

Filter software only has an advantage for those who create it. They earn Big Bucks by making parents paranoid about the dangers of the Internet.

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In 2007 a porn filter created by the Australian government was cracked by a 16 year old boy, within half an hour! All he had to do was a couple of mouse clicks and the filter was disabled, but appeared to be working! Dutch article here: security.nl/artikel/16779/… Google translation here: translate.google.com/… –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 8:47
    
I agree, education is paramount. the most dangerous thing for kids on the internet is not static content but other people. –  RYFN Sep 24 '09 at 11:19
    
Yes, education is paramount, but there are still instances where you would want to block content from your children. The beauty of OpenDNS is that it is a non-fuss simple filter that gives you fine grain control over what sites are denied. You really do need a combination of both, with more emphasis on the former. –  David Pearce Sep 24 '09 at 12:41
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I'll definitely second the failure of the Chinese filter. I've seen hardcore porn on screens in internet cafes over there. –  Loren Pechtel Sep 24 '09 at 20:20
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Netnanny and Cyberpatrol are two internet-content filtering softwares which you can install on your computer. Also OpenDNS filters lot of objectionable content (that includes malicious links).Other alternatives (but less effective options) are spector and Safe eyes.

Firefox filtering extension Procon, IM-filtering software IM-Safer. For session monitoring, Safesurfers is monitoring software but it's too much if you wish to log the kids sessions.

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Filters are bad, unless you give your child the option to disable it themselves! (That way, they will understand it's a tool to help them and not to annoy them.) –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 8:20
    
I can understand that. But what and how they access is not in our hand. We can't be at everyplace every-time. So nothing wrong with filter. Is there anything wrong with "caged bed" we put for young ones ? –  Mahesh Sep 24 '09 at 13:42
    
When my son got the ability to get out of the crib, it suddenly lost all its utility: all it would do is allow him to climb out of it and fall on the floor. I fully agree with Workshop Alex: a filter can be useful, but the kid will learn to get around it, and then it's a liability. Install a filter and tell the kid what it's for and how to get around it, if you like. –  David Thornley Sep 24 '09 at 19:39
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I use OpenDNS to look after the Network here.

One objection that people have to services such as OpenDNS is that they are able to log all of the sites (to Domain Level) that you visit. Two things:

  1. This can be used when they are suggesting corrections for an incorrect domain.
  2. Your ISP is able to log every site that you go to as well.

Some ISP's actually have a service where they will block sites that are perceived to be objectionable, so I suggest that you look into this option with your ISP.

I agree with Joshhunt, Education is very important. In New Zealand there are sites such as Netsafe that give practical advice on Cybersafety (and as it's on the Internet anyone can see it).

Hope this helps.

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This is good advise! While I'm against filters, I do think logging can be useful to discover what your child is up to! It won't stop children from viewing inappropriate content but when you discover they've done so, you can talk about it with them and educate them even further. (And perhaps punish them for disobedience.) –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 7:07
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You can download/buy this piece of software that filters out unwanted content on the web.

http://www.cyberpatrol.com/family.asp

Headquarters Toolbar Control how and when people use your computer. Quickly and easily check status and modify settings

Flexible Content Filtering Options Use the ‘ready-to-go’ filter settings, or customize for each user. Block porn and other unsuitable web sites, content and images Choose from Child, Young Teen, Mature Teen or Adult settings Select from 9 commonly blocked categories including Adult, Chat, Drugs, Gambling Create your own pre-approved list of sites

Limit Access to Programs Do you want to make some programs ‘off-limits’ to your children? Block IM, chat, games or home finance programs Prevent program downloads that can harm your PC

Restrict Chat & Instant Messaging Keep cyberbullies, online predators and scammers away from your kids. Protect personal information (address, phone number, etc.) from being revealed Block objectionable words and phrases used by cyberbullies and predators Choose from an enhanced list of common cyberbullying phrases to block

Monitor Internet Activity Know where your kids go online. Get detailed reports on web pages visited, time and length of visit View and save weekly and daily summaries Easily block future access to objectionable sites

Limit Time Online Too much Internet? Create predetermined time rules. Limit based on time of day, or daily/weekly cumulative time allowances Control both Internet and program use Once time limits are reached, a blocking message appears

Manage User Profiles Manage Internet access for as many people on one PC as needed Create multiple users with different filtering levels Integrates with existing user names on Windows XP and Vista

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And visit cexx.org/censware.htm to see how to bypass most of those filters! You install the filter, your kid visits this site and disables it again... –  Wim ten Brink Sep 24 '09 at 8:22
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