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."
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.
Safe Eyes users can specify which personal information is too sensitive and alert parents if children post it online.
Another program, IMSafer, monitors instant message conversations and notifies parents when their children are talking about topics that could put them at risk, like planning a meeting or setting up webcam conversations. To respect children's privacy, IMSafer shares only questionable portions of conversations with parents.
While most discussion on content-control software focuses on combating pornography and sexual predators, many parents are interested in time controls, too.
"A lot of parents were concerned with the amount of time their kids were spending online and wanted a way to monitor and control that," says Mr. Kenny.
Safe Eyes and several other content-control packages now offer parents the ability to limit their children's Web time.
Windows Vista lets parents decide when their kids can use the computer. Working parents whose child spends part of the day home alone might set their child's account to allow computer access only from 5:30 p.m. to bedtime, for instance.
Still, a number of skeptics point out that, even with recent improvements, filters are far from perfect, can block valuable information, and pose little obstacle to a determined and tech-savvy child.
"The truth is that lots of parents get by without using any [Internet filter] at all, and most of them seem to be happy with that decision," says Bennett Haselton, founder of Peacefire, an "anticensorship" Internet organization that creates simple ways for blocked users to bypass content filters. Mr. Haselton says teenagers are mature enough to handle an unfiltered Internet. "If you use blocking software, be aware that there are sites out there like Peacefire that will make it pretty easy for [kids] to get around it."
Leo Carey, a computer-networking teacher at Boston Latin Academy, says many of his students use proxy servers like those created by Haselton to bypass the public high school's filter. "Rather than going overboard trying to block things, the real strategy is to educate them about the inappropriateness of what they're doing and why it's inappropriate," says Mr. Carey. "They're really reasonable about that kind of stuff."
"I don't really think you can block it all out," says Frank Curiel, a Costa Mesa, Calif., father who doesn't restrict his 15-year-old son's Internet access. "Basically what we do is we trust [our son], and we set up guidelines, like when he's working on his computer, his door is open."
The University of Chicago Laboratory School, a private primary and secondary school, chose not to use an Internet filter. The school establishes Internet usage guidelines and offers classes about Internet safety. So far, there have been limited infractions, says Lucy Gray, a middle-school computer science teacher. "It's teaching the kids how to use the tool in the context of how it should be used," she explains.
"No tool is 100 percent safe," says Mr. Balkam. "It's no good just to think 'I've got the Windows Vista parental controls. I don't need to talk to my kids.' "
A filter made it easier for Mary Kate Dillon to talk with her son. "It's a good springboard into a dialogue with kids about what we value," she says.