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Spyware and Other Security Tools

For younger kids that have technical know-how, a healthy curiosity, and a readily-available computer, some kind of parental control software is a must. Fortunately the range and quality of products to choose from has improved dramatically in the last couple of years as parents, educators - and news organizations - have focused on some of the problems arising from unfettered Internet access.

Parental control software can allow parents to do several things:

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

For 9-12 year-olds, managing time spent at the computer is as important as monitoring the amount of time spent watching TV. At this age, kids should 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 at this age 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 suites allow weekly scheduling of times when the Internet is and isn't available to your children, along with daily time limits for each member of the family.

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.

Bear in mind that such an approach can lead to 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 really smart ones allow parents to do this remotely if, for example, they are at work and a must-see web site is needed for a homework assignment.

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.

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, some of the more popular suites are listed below.

CyberPatrol - a top-rated program by many review sites and magazines, CyberPatrol excels for its versatility, allowing customization for multiple users. One catch is that it can only be installed on one computer but that might be fine if there's a single family computer for everyone's use. $39.95 to download. Need to renew subscription at the same price after 1 year. 14-day free trial available.

Webroot Parental Controls - another versatile and comprehensive 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 - a good choice if your home has more than one computer since Safe Eyes can be installed on up to three systems. 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 then $49.95 annually to renew.

Net Nanny - an award winning application, which excels in ease-of-use. The interface is very intuitive and smooth for parents to set-up and maintain. Sold for single computers at an annual subscription of $29.99.

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