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Parental Controls Part II

Part II of a two-part article on Parental Controls
(see Part I of Parental Controls)


By Paul O'Reilly
So you've made the decision to install parental control software. What's next? What are the recommendations from the experts and what's right for your family? Above all, how easy is it to install the software and keep it up-to-date?

Parental control software has come a long way in the last year, with major players in the market releasing updated packages with two things in mind: ease-of-use and improved customization – so families can adjust them to suit their individual needs.
:::
Keeping it simple

Like most software companies, the parental control manufacturers have quickly got up-to-speed on the ease-of-use issue. No more 30-page user manuals!

We want downloadable software or a CD that walks us through the process and allows us to throw out the box as soon as we take the wrapper off.  Fortunately that's what most of the leading products now deliver.

Make sure it's right for your family

Experts say to look for the following when choosing parental control software:

  • User-selectable access levels. A complicated-sounding term but it simply means the software package should allow for multiple users at differing levels of filtering. Younger children need more protection; older children need less.  If you have more than one child in the house and they all use the same computer, then you want software that allows you to adjust the filters for each child.

    (A quick note here: most parental control software packages now allow installation on up to 3 separate computers under one license fee – a big plus if you have more than one PC in the house.)
  • User-adjustable filters. As well as being able to adjust access levels as kids mature, look for software that allows you to adjust the list of blocked sites. Most parental control software will block from regularly updated lists of "bad" web sites and additionally scan content for objectionable "keywords".

    The better ones will also allow a parent to override filters or create exceptions. Legitimate sites are often inadvertently blocked when keywords are taken out of context.
  • Filtering of instant messaging and social networking sites. Some of the most dangerous online threats are rooted in instant messaging and social networking sites. Predators aim to identify and contact kids, prompting them to divulge phone numbers and addresses. The best parental control software can block instant messaging entirely or filter chat conversations, alerting parents if suspicious keywords are logged. Most can also record chat conversations for review.
  • Time management controls.  A great feature to have!  More and more packages now come with controls that allow parents to schedule both the time and duration of their kids' sessions on the computer and/or the Internet.  No more arguing about just 5 more minutes on Club Penguin. When you are timed-out there's no more discussion!

    Plus, this feature is great when more than one child (or parent!) is competing for time at the family computer.  Some programs even allow you to compose an easy-to-follow weekly schedule that can be printed out and posted in the family room for easy reference.
  • Look for a package that's easy to maintain and update. As both your child and the Internet continue to grow, you'll want a software package that can handle your child's increasing maturity and the increasingly sophisticated content on the web.  Make sure you will receive regular updates as part of your purchase or subscription.


Built-in controls

The first place to look for parental controls? On your computer. The overwhelming majority of new laptop and desktop computers now come with some form of parental controls built into the operating system.

Microsoft's Vista operating system offers most of the major features of stand-alone software: time-limit settings, adjustable levels of site and application blocking, IM blocking and usage logging. But be aware – Vista doesn't allow parents to customize time limits as well as some third-party programs and it doesn't offer remote management.

Apple's new operating system, Leopard, offers similar features to Vista, except that it doesn't yet allow the same fine-tuned control over games as Vista does.

Despite their modest shortcomings, these "built-in" controls may be all you need. And they have one big advantage over independent software packages – they're free! (After you have paid for the new laptop that is.)

Subscription services

If you have an older operating system – XP or Windows 2000 for example – or if you want a more sophisticated package, then you will need to select from one of the many third-party parental control providers that are on the market today. A quick word about how that works.

All the leading providers will allow you to download their software online – a huge convenience so you don't have to make a trip to Best Buy or wait for the CD to arrive.  The cost for one year's service is around the $40 mark for all the packages and for that you also get free protection updates, product upgrades and customer support.  But here's the rub: it's a subscription-based service, so if you don't renew the controls are switched-off.

So don't think of it as a one-off purchase; think of it as the annual subscription it is.  Although most programs will give you a sizeable discount if you sign up for multiple years at the outset.

Market leaders

Want a recommendation? Here are the four that we like the best:

CyberPatrol - a top-rated program by many review sites and magazines, CyberPatrol excels for its versatility, allowing customization for an unlimited number of users. $39.95 to download for 1 year, although you can save up to 35% for a 5-year subscription. 14-day free trial available.

Webroot Parental Controls - very easy-to-use and versatile program, offering the full range of filtering and monitoring services. $39.95 to download. Good for 1 year and then renew annually at same price. Also check out Webroot's excellent A Parent's Guide to Online Safety. Download a free version of the Handbook, courtesy of The Online Mom.

Safe Eyes – slightly more expensive but has a remote notification feature that sends instant alerts by e-mail or text if your child is trying to access a questionable site. Also, Safe Eyes' remote changes become effective immediately - helpful if you are at work and your child needs extra time online or access to a blocked site. $49.95 to download. Good for one year and the same again to renew annually.

Net Nanny – another package that has won praise for its intuitive interface and general ease-of-use. $39.95 or you can get a free 14-day trial.

Got questions about Parental Controls or any of the packages discussed here?  Send an e-mail to The Online Mom and we will get right back to you.

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.



Comments:
Comment by Jamie Cainfield, posted 3/23/2009, 4:00 PM:

All of the programs you list here are filters first and foremost. And filters in general are flawed if only because they are so easy to defeat. The other problem is they don't really allow you to see what your child is seeing. Let me tell you that was a real shock for us. After we installed a parental control program called PC Tattletale (http://www.pctattletale.com) my husband and I were amazed what our son was able to get to even though we already had CyberPatrol.
Comment by Ronnie, posted 11/6/2008, 3:56 PM:

In addition to the four web filters above, I would recommend Livia Web Protection. With Livia, parents are able to quickly set filtering policies to protect their children from accessing websites that contain adult/pornographic materials and other undesirable content that they want to shield from their children’s eyes. For parents, they are able to protect their computers from sites that contain keyloggers, viruses, and corrupt phishing websites. Visit http://www.liviaweb.com for a free trial.
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