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Protecting Your Children on the Internet

by Christine Stoner

Copyright 1999 Christine Stoner. All rights reserved.

Just as the Internet is a vast resource for adults, it is also a resource for children of all ages. They can use it for homework -- researching topics and emailing assignments to teachers -- or for chatting online and playing games after school. The problem for many parents is that of monitoring which Web sites their children are viewing, and with whom they are talking. Parents are not always available to surf the Net with their children, leaving their children unprotected.

Protecting your children online is a twofold issue. First, you want to prevent them from seeing information on sites that they are too young and impressionable to see. These sites include everything from violence and hate to pornography, and are protected by the First Amendment. Second, you want to protect your children from online predators. The Internet has become the tool of choice for many sexual predators, and the anonymity of all chat rooms, including those especially for children, allows anyone on the other end of the phone line to pose as a child. A young, trusting child may give out his name and address to a new "friend" online without realizing he is giving his whereabouts to an adult who means to do him harm.

Nevertheless, protecting your children online isn't as simple as telling them to stay out of all chat rooms and away from dangerous sites. Children by nature are curious, and telling them to stay away just invites them in. Luckily, certain software packages can help you to monitor where your children are spending their time on the World Wide Web, as well as prevent them from going to various places. In evaluating the following software I found they all did the job to some extent and were relatively easy to use. Keep in mind that these "filtering" programs may filter out some good sites along with the bad. Your child's online academic research may miss some important sites; however, this trade-off may be very worthwhile.

The first protection option you have is that provided by your online browsers, such as CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, etc. In most cases, these set controls either by age or through a rating service. Let me take you in-depth into several other options available online.


Surfwatch , which is available online, was a very easy-to-use filtering program which could be customized depending on your personal preferences. Surfwatch claims to block 90-95% of the explicit material on the Net, including millions of URLs, newsgroups and Internet Relay Chat channels that contain explicit material. A feature of this software, which I found particularly good, was the "Test-A-Site," where I tested several URLs against their filters to find out if they were blocked. This reassured me that they were blocking what they said they were. Also, they have a "Submit-A-Site" service on which you can suggest a site for blocking or, as the case may be, for unblocking. Surfwatch first came out in 1995 and over the last several years has continually improved their product. You can purchase their software through their Web site for $39.95; you can also download a free trial version of the software prior to purchase.

Cyber Patrol

Another software option out there is Cyber Patrol. Cyber Patrol features automatic blocking of specified Internet sites, a CyberNot block list (researched sites containing questionable material), and HotNots (a list of blocked sites, updated daily). One terrific feature of Cyber Patrol is the ability for up to nine different users to have their own passwords and selections. This means you can have separate areas blocked for each child in your household, depending on age and maturity.

Cyber Patrol goes beyond filtering to the next level of protection and provides a ChatGard. One important feature of ChatGard is that it prevents children from divulging personal information (name, phone number, etc.) online. Parents enter selected words or character strings on a ChatGard list; then, if the child types these words or character strings, these are replaced by an equivalent number of nonsense characters, which are in turn sent out online. This can also be used to prevent kids from searching on certain key words online. The software included seven profanities, and parents can add others. Also, by using ChatGard you can restrict the child's Net access to certain times of day, and limit the total time that can be spent online. This cumulative use feature can provide an overview of your children's computer usage and be customized for each member of the family. In this way, online access can be tailored to the needs, ages and maturity of the children in your family.

My favorite part of the Cyber Patrol software was the CyberYES List. This is a listing of researched Internet sites, which contain fun and educational material for children. Instead of using the CyberNOT Block list, parents can simply use the CyberYES Allowed Sites list, thus restricting the child to specific sites only. Depending on the age of the child, this can be a much easier option.

Cyber Patrol can be downloaded and purchased directly from the Cyber Patrol Web site, as well as by mail or phone, for $29.95. The download features a free trial period. Also, the Cyber Patrol site offers an online demo tour, which allows you to see the features of Cyber Patrol and several screen shots.

Net Nanny

A third software option available for monitoring, screening and filtering access is Net Nanny . Through Net Nanny you can filter and block Web sites, newsgroups, chat channels, personal information, and words and phrases. An added feature of this software is the ability to monitor other programs on your PC, including email and chat programs, MS Word, Notepad and Wordpad

Net Nanny, like the other software mentioned in this article, provides you with Can Go and Can't Go site lists, which you can download into screening databases. These databases are fully editable and can be customized to the needs of your family. This can be time-consuming but well worth the effort. One feature of Net Nanny that I like is that it can operate without your children knowing; if you don't want your children to figure out that it is operating you do have the option of keeping it in the background. Another feature of Net Nanny is the ability to choose which words you don't want entered or received on your terminal. For violations you have the ability to log the hit, mask the words (replace them with nonsense), give a warning, block access or shut down the application. Net Nanny allows you to use the program to monitor where your child has surfed on the World Wide Web and when.

Net Nanny can be downloaded for $39.95 from their Web site or ordered by phone. You can also download an evaluation version from the Web site to review it and make sure it works for you.

Finally, there is no substitute for parental involvement when your kids are surfing online. Personally monitoring their choice of chat partners, as well as the sites they are visiting on the Internet, is your most important tool for ensuring their safety while giving them access to the full benefits the Internet has to offer.

In order to protect your children from harm on the Internet, instruct them to:

1. never give out personal information (name, address, phone number, etc.) online.

2. log off the computer and report to you immediately if anyone says anything to them in a chat room which makes them uncomfortable. (Note: If it's a children's chat room where something inappropriate is said you should immediately notify the chat room's coordinator.)

Christine Stoner is a freelance writer out of Elverson, PA. She publishes a FREE monthly newsletter, TimeTips , which provides useful tips for saving time at everyday activities and finding more time in your busy schedule.


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