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Parental Controls Part I

No more excuses! They’re easy to understand, easier to install… and they may already be sitting on your computer!

By Paul O'Reilly

These days, even very young kids can quickly develop a technical know-how to go alongside their healthy curiosity. Combine those qualities with access to a readily-available computer and before long they are happily Googling and YouTube-ing to their hearts content.  Most parents convince themselves that they are always there to keep a watchful eye or nothing bad could ever happen.  But then nearly can everyone can recite a story of a friend or neighbor’s child that stumbled across an inappropriate web site or ended up deleting the household investments…and relate to the tears and trauma that followed!

So how can you make sure this doesn’t happen in your house?  It’s easy…and getting easier – install some parental controls. Does this mean downloading expensive software and entering into annual subscriptions?  Not necessarily. Like your TV, most newer computers and laptops now come with parental control software already installed.  But first, let’s take a look at exactly what parental control software is designed to do

What are parental controls?

Parental control software allows parents to do several things:

  • Manage time spent on the Internet or on the computer
  • Limit what their children are allowed to see and read online
  • Select which computer programs children can use
  • Monitor and log all internet activity

In assessing what we need for our children, age makes a huge difference.  Also, like every other activity in their lives, the needs and level of protection required when our kids are on the computer will vary dramatically based on their level of curiosity and their maturity. Let’s look at each of the above categories and try and decide what’s appropriate.

Managing computer time

For all children, managing time spent at the computer is as important as monitoring the amount of time spent watching TV. Even at a young age, kids will have already grasped the notion that the computer is part-toy, part-educational tool and a plan to schedule and limit their time in front of the computer will continue to develop a healthy respect for this important device. Like the TV, computer use should not be an automatic right; rather it should be a privilege earned by good behavior and respect for the rules of engagement!

Most parental control software allows scheduling of times when the computer, and by extension the Internet, is and isn't available to your children.  You can build daily or weekly schedules and most programs are flexible enough to accommodate extra time on weekends or in the evenings if the computer is used as a regular resource for school projects.

Parental controls can also be used to set times and limits for multiple members of the family, helping end arguments by creating a weekly schedule that can be posted for everyone to see.

Filters and blocking software

When it comes to controlling what children are allowed to see and read, most security suites will typically offer to block web sites matching specific categories such as pornography, violence, drugs, or chat. Some blocking software will refer to its own database of matching sites, which is constantly updated for new additions, and others will analyze page content in much the same way that search engines do.

Again, where there is more than one child is in the house, filtering software can usually be customized to allow different access for different children – a useful feature where social networking habits might range from Webkinz to MySpace!

Bear in mind that some blocking programs can lead to unexpected anomalies.  It's not unusual for filtering software to deny access to thousands of pages of informative text about Michelangelo and other renaissance artists because the word "nude" is prominently featured in describing their work! This over-blocking (and sometimes under-blocking) of web sites has always been a regular criticism of filtering software, so most programs now incorporate an override feature so parents can allow access to specific sites if desired. Some of the more sophisticated programs allow parents to do this remotely if, for example, there is a must-see web site is needed for a school project.

Protect files and turn off applications

All parental control software programs will also allow parents to "turn off' applications that are normally available to older users. Typically these would be e-mail services but could also include financial applications, games, movies, or other entertainment programs available off the desktop or elsewhere.

These are the controls that can protect the family investment plan or make sure your carefully-compiled online family photo collection is not accidentally wiped out!

To spy or not to spy?!

Finally, there is the "spyware" side of parental controls. An extremely useful tool if you want to monitor how adventurous your children might be getting with their Internet searches! Typically, these monitoring features will log every attempt to visit a banned web site or simply record every web site visited, good or bad. They can even send notifications real-time, so you can be at work and see which sites your children are attempting to visit...and then make an urgent call to the babysitter to find out why she isn't paying attention!

Other controls will allow deeper monitoring, literally recording all IM conversations and e-mail. This can be entirely reasonable as your child establishes their first e-mail account and starts IM-ing their buddies as soon as they get home from school. But at some point you will need to wean yourself away from reading all their everyday exchanges - hopefully long before they suspect you of doing so!

Built-in and custom software

The overwhelming majority of new laptop and desktop computers now come with some form of parental controls built into the operating system. For example, the parental control features incorporated into Microsoft's Vista are very comprehensive and maybe all you need. For Mac users, the new operating system Leopard offers similar features. However, if you want more thorough parental controls, or are using an earlier operating system, you may want to purchase or download one of the many specialty parental control software packages that are on the market today.

In an article to be published this Thursday, we take a more detailed look at what’s out there, what the critics recommend, and a step-by-step guide to installation.

Paul O'Reilly has held several senior positions in technology and event marketing companies over the last 15 years and currently resides in Harrison, New York with his wife and 9-year old daughter.

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