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Out of (Parental) Control

It’s easy to block websites and TV shows, but how can parents regulate music downloads and picture texts?

By Sarah Klein

You monitor what they watch on TV, and make sure they’re only visiting appropriate web sites. But how can you protect your child on gadgets that aren’t yet subject to standard parental controls? How can you make sure your child isn’t receiving graphic text messages, surfing inappropriate sites on a mobile device, or downloading R-rated movies or explicit songs?

As technology has advanced, new controls have emerged for some of the more sophisticated gadgets that are now such a part of our children’s daily lives. Unfortunately, these controls have always played catch-up with the advancing technology, leaving some gaping holes in the standards of protection that most parents are looking for.

History of Parental Controls

Rating systems were the original standby method of parental control for movies, television shows, and later, video games. Even music became subject to parental advisory labels. But, in the early days, following a rating system was essentially voluntary. In most cases, parents had to trust that their children were playing by the rules.

One of the first tools to offer parents help was the V-chip, on the market since 2000. The V-chip allowed parents to configure the settings on their home cable box to block programs they deemed inappropriate.

As access to the Internet became more widespread and people became aware of the number of X-rated web sites, calls for greater control over access became a steady drumbeat. Web providers such as AOL and MSN made parental controls part of their key features, allowing parents to block children from visiting certain sites or from having access to certain chat or file-sharing features.

Video game consoles also jumped on board: systems like the Wii, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation are all programmable to block M-rated gaming activity and access to inappropriate web sites on the devices with online capabilities.

Now, entire operating systems have built-in parental controls. Windows Vista allows parents to block web sites, games and programs from one central settings menu. Vista can also keep track of how long a child is on the computer, logging their activity, and then automatically logging off once a pre-set time limit is reached.

But when it comes to downloading music and videos, sending text messages, and accessing online content on mobile devices, parental controls are still in the early stages of development. Unlike with home computer web browsers, controlling the flow of information over the newer gadgets is mostly left to parents themselves.

Music and Video Downloads

Controls over downloading music and videos vary dramatically with each software option or application. iTunes, for example, comes equipped with controls allowing parents to block “explicit content” in songs, as well as movies, TV shows, and games, all of which are available for purchase through the iTunes store. If that’s not enough, parents can also disable podcasts, shared music, the radio features, and even the iTunes store itself. Napster also has settings available to block explicit content.

But children using free file-sharing sites like Limewire (where, by the way, it is technically illegal to download copyrighted content) are harder to police. While the site supposedly has settings to block explicit content, the general feeling among users, as posted on various message boards and online communities, seems to be that the settings don’t do much besides slowing the download process.

Phones and Mobile Devices

However, the bigger concern for most parents are cell phones and other mobile devices. There have been numerous stories of teens snapping naked or otherwise inappropriate photos of themselves with a camera phone and then sending them to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Often, pictures that the teens thought would remain private end up on the Internet and, in some cases, charges of child pornography and other serious felonies have been brought.

The presence of built-in control features on these handhelds varies with the manufacturer and/or the service provider. Some phones designed for younger children, like the Kajeet, come with a full range of parental controls. Others, like the iPhone, come with built-in controls for skipping explicit songs and blocking inappropriate websites.

Both AT&T and Verizon have begun to make up for the lack of parental controls on most phones. For an extra $5 a month, parents can program a time limit for how long a child may spend using the phone. Parents can also block calls or text messages from selected numbers, and program the times of day when a child is allowed to use the phone. And of course, both feature controls for mobile devices with access to the Internet to block certain web sites or restrict e-mail and chat features.

Text messaging remains the least regulated of regular teen electronic activity. No service provider has announced plans or programs for controlling the content of text messages. Those that do have limits on texting allow parents to determine how many messages are sent or received but, of course, they can’t control what the messages actually say. This will continue to be a tricky issue to work around, as reading and censoring text messages would certainly step on the toes of many a privacy-hungry teenager.

It’s likely that controls will someday be in place for most handheld devices. Until then, familiarize yourself with the controls that are available on your teen’s cell phone or your child’s favorite downloading web site. Decide if purchasing extra protection through your carrier may be the right option for your family. Keep an ear open for updates and new developments in parental controls. If you find that the security measures available aren’t adequate, make sure to be more aware of how and when your child is using the unregulated technology. Until controls catch up, it’s back to basics, with parents once again having to take responsibility for directly monitoring their children’s activities.

Sarah Klein is a freelance writer for both print and online media living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been featured in Health.com, Sports Illustrated Kids, and Scholastic Classroom Magazines. To read more of her work, visit SarahKleinWrites.com.

Comment by dave chinn, posted 3/13/2009, 9:01 PM:

blocking downloads does not work if your child is in a roaming area. also how do you block other people from sending text to your child.
Comment by David Chinn, posted 3/13/2009, 8:58 PM:

My daughter has verizon but since she lives in a roaming area no controls work. why cann't they make a phone with a regular key pad that allows limits like the firefly. also that can limit the number of text and minutes in a one month period of time. Probably because cell phone companies make big bucks on overusage by teanagers.
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