Dear Lifehacker, So my kids are now aged 5 and 4 and are rapidly familiarising themselves with computers and the internet. I never thought I'd have to bother about it, but. . . parental controls and filters. What are your recommendations? Thanks, Concerned Parent
Send 'em outside with a football and a cricket bat. Within five minutes, somebody will have been hit in the head with the bat, and you'll have to deal with the problem anyway.
No, wait, that's the kind of advice that I would have been told thirty years ago when all I wanted to do as a kid myself was watch TV. It's not terribly practical or useful advice, either, because it ignores the increasingly central role that the internet plays in all of our lives, a role that's only going to increase for our offspring.
The problem with facing this kind of question is that it's rather like talking about "best" parenting techniques. There is no "best" technique, because everyone's approach — and in the case of controls and filters, everyone's tolerances — differ. You may be incredibly conservative, wishing to block everything but Play School, or incredibly liberal in your attitudes. Guns may be good, boobs may be bad, or it could be the other way around. I'm not going to say either approach is "wrong" — but I can relate my own experiences.
It's been a while since I've reviewed any filtering software at the consumer level, but back when I did, I was never terribly impressed. Dodgy detection mechanisms, easy methodologies for bypassing and often suspect filtering lists left a bad taste in my mouth, which is why to date I've not personally installed a strict filtering software approach for my own family.
It turns out that my conclusions about filtering probably aren't that far off. Enex Test Labs do exactly this sort of testing, and in a post relating to filtering software, Matt Tett of Enex Test labs — writes that:
"The bottom line is to remember that while a filter installed on a family computer goes some ways to ensuring that children will not be exposed to the worst of the worst, it still is not an excuse for failure to monitor and educate the family about the reasons for it being installed in the first place. Treat it as a line drawn in the sand, a family rule. I am sure a child or juvenile found to have breached the trust once will find a cyber-grounding - through the removal of their access privileges to the Internet - will have a similar effect to physical grounding and restricting privileges to go out with friends. No matter what the circumstance, parents will still need to be aware of and monitor their children’s online activities and implement appropriate discipline the same as they would in the real world."
So what to do? Both Windows and Mac OS have simple filtering controls built in — the ones around usage times may be particularly useful — and likewise it's really rather sensible to implement the safe search functionality built into both Google and Bing. Lifehacker has covered how to set these up previously, and they're strongly advised.
Otherwise, though, I do side with Matt's conclusion; when my kids are online, I'm ensuring that they're doing so in a way that's safe. Part of that involves placing the net-connected devices in a public area where I can keep a watchful eye on what they're doing, and part of that involves communication.
Having a set policy, and explaining what's safe (or not safe) online can go a long way. I managed several years ago to tie my talk with them about online safety (especially as it relates to personal information) to the stranger danger lessons my daughter was getting at school. Because they relate to the same kinds of things, it was easy to get her to take those lessons on board — and so far, so good.
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