Internet filters block porn, but not savvy kids
'Nannyware' can help, but the best parental control is still a parent, experts say.
Like any mother, Mary Kate Dillon had concerns about her preteen son using the Internet. Still, she didn't go beyond looking over his shoulder every now and then. "He's a really good kid," says Mrs. Dillon, who lives in the Boston suburb of Needham. "This is not a risk-taking, overly mature 11-year-old."Skip to next paragraph
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Then the Dillons' computer repairman inadvertently discovered that her son had visited a number of websites featuring real-life violence. "The pictures were more gore than anything appropriately medical," says Dillon, a nurse.
She decided it was time for a more aggressive approach and began using additional features on Norton Internet Security, already installed on her computer, to monitor the websites visited. If he wanted to look at something questionable, his mom had to open the site with a password.
"I felt like I was empowered," Dillon says. "I always have access and can look up anywhere that [my son] goes on this computer, so [he] needs to make wise choices."
As a generation of children often more technologically savvy than their parents grows up with the Internet, improved content filters can give parents the ability to block objectionable material.
They may be a good option, now that a federal court has overturned Congress's attempt to restrict Internet pornography. Last month, US District Judge Lowell Reed Jr. reversed a 1998 law that called for prison sentences and fines against owners of websites with "harmful" content if they didn't require "effective" age verification to block access by minors. Internet filters offer a better solution, Judge Reed argued, because they are less restrictive and don't violate adults' First Amendment rights.
"Just because you want to protect kids doesn't mean you can ban the information for adults," says Carl Solano, a partner at Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis LLP, who specializes in First Amendment and appellate law.
Already, a majority of families use Internet filters to curb the cyberworld's free speech so it mirrors their own standards of appropriateness. A March 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 54 percent of families with teens who go online said they used a content filter.
In the early days of Internet filters, users criticized some for overfiltering and blocking content based on political motivations rather than safety concerns. Experts say these issues are of far less concern now. "The filtering tools simply get better every year," says Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute.
Surf Control, like many Internet filters,provides customizable options. It offers 54 categories of websites that users can block or allow.
"We stay out of the way and allow corporations and individuals to make their own policy choices," says Max Rayner, executive vice president of products and services for Surf Control, headquartered in Scotts Valley, Calif.
Vista, the latest version of Microsoft Windows, includes extensive parental controls with general or customizable settings. Parents can build separate user accounts with different privileges for each child. The oldest might have access to everything but pornographic or violent sites, while the youngest might have access only to a handful of kids' websites.
The explosion of social networking sites has raised safety concerns. "Most parents don't mind their kids interacting with their friends on MySpace, but they want to protect them from predators," says Aaron Kenny, chief technology officer of SafeBrowse in Acworth, Ga., which makes an Internet filter called Safe Eyes.