Keeping kids safe online a tough job for parents


Dec. 16, 2001


For more than five years, I've written columns about the Internet, the good and the bad.

Early on, newspaper reports and TV broadcasts frequently carried stories that showed just how "new" we were to the Internet: there were Internet-related abductions and kidnappings, as well as scams and other crimes. Any crime with a connection to the Internet was news, no matter how small.

While users have become savvier, so have the crooks.

Something I don't discuss much in my columns is the seedier side of the Internet. This includes Web sites with content inappropriate for children, of which there are many.

If you're planning on a new computer for your family, children or grandchildren, you probably have already wondered what steps you can take to protect your kids or grandchildren from the trash that's available online.

There are a number of Internet providers who offer filtered access. These providers filter out as much of the trash as possible, making it unavailable to anyone trying to find it using their service for Internet access.

How well their system works depends on how closely their view of objectionable content matches yours. Finding one with a local dial-up telephone number in your area may also be a problem. In my rural area, I had a difficult time finding a filtered Internet service that was a local call.

My local cable company offers both filtered and unfiltered Internet access. It uses Bess, a proxy server system, to filter the Internet. And while parents can enable and disable Bess as desired, there still may be differences in a parent's view of objectionable content and the filtering company's view.

There are a number of software packages that can be a big help to parents.

The product names include NetNanny, CYBERsitter, Surf Patrol, Internet Guard Dog and others.

Each product essentially makes use of its own database of known sites the software company has determined are inappropriate for children. Each software package has other features that can help parents know what their children are doing online.

Unfortunately, in tests by CNet and Consumer Reports, both found that the software programs missed a large number of objectionable Web sites.

CNet's review in June 2001 found that the best program only blocked access to 50 percent of the test sites with objectionable content, while it blocked a number of Web sites that had kid-safe content.

Consumer Reports found in its tests of blocking software that two of the top software programs blocked only one-fifth of the 53 objectionable Web sites it assembled for its tests.

While there may be differences of opinion on what is and is not objectionable content for your children, the top blocking programs also give parents tools that can help them know what their kids are doing online.

Cyber Patrol allows parents to control when children can go online. It also has a feature called ChatGARD, which prevents chatting children from divulging personal information to others. It also allows parents to block or unblock sites that deal with sex education.

CYBERsitter keeps a log of user violations and also offers control of when users can go online.

CNet gave its top rating to Net Nanny in its review of blocking software earlier this year. Net Nanny offers a wide array of controls, giving parents the ability to provide different access levels to different users. Parents can determine access privileges to Web sites, newsgroups and chat rooms.

Consumer Reports gave high marks to America Online's parental controls. In its tests, the "Young Teen" rating -- for ages 13-15 -- blocked more objectionable Web sites than any of the blocking software programs.

Clearly, no software program is going to be a complete solution -- which is exactly what Jerry Lear, one of the owners of Bardstown Internet Service, a local Internet provider, told me recently.

Lear said in his view, the best way to keep children from accessing objectionable content is to keep the computer in a public area -- the TV room, den, kitchen or other room in the home.

"Keep your computer in a public place in the home, that's the best solution," Lear said.

Lear said that he doesn't believe that as an Internet provider, he or his business should be responsible for filtering the Internet.

The responsibility of deciding what is objectionable or acceptable a child lies with his or her parents, not their Internet provider, Lear said.

While I did not test each software package for this column, I've tried them in the past and found each a fairly effective tool. The real question is how well parents use the software programs.

None of the programs listed here are a "install-it-and-forget-it" program. Each requires periodic updates of its database of banned Web sites, though parents can add additional banned Web sites when necessary.

But blocking software isn't a complete solution. As Lear, CNet and Consumer Reports all pointed out. Ultimately, it boils down to parental supervision.

If you want to know what your teen is doing online, keep the computer in a public area, and ask lots of questions. The blocking software can help parents control access and monitor what's going on.

But even used as tools, the blocking programs aren't bulletproof. Technically savvy kids today can find ways to disable or work around the software; there are Web sites devoted to doing so.

Turning your kids loose on the Internet is similar to letting them go to Los Angeles without adult supervision. There are a lot of great places to go, but every community has its bad areas, and the Internet has plenty of places your kids don't need to visit.

The Web site has tips for keeping kids safe on the Internet, and I recommend parents share their eight Kids' Rules for Online Safety with their children.

The rules are common sense stuff, but it is an opportunity to talk with your children about the Internet and their safety when using it. also has tips for parents -- it is especially useful for parents or grandparents who want to learn more about potential hazards online.

For more information on protecting kids online, visit and

GOOD ADVICE. In a previous column I mentioned a screensaver that was available at a Web site in my hometown. Jerry Lear, one of the owners of Bardstown Internet Service, called to my attention the fact I failed to put a direct link to the screensaver in my column.

A direct link would allow users to go directly to the file and download it.

Lear said that with the increased number of computer viruses and worms that e-mail themselves to users, people should avoid sending screensavers and other holiday-related files as e-mail attachments.

The link for the Old Kentucky Home screensaver is on the home page of If you wish to share it with others, send them the Web address; don't send it as an attachment.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to, or visit on the World Wide Web.

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