Protecting the Kids from the Internet

What's a typical parent to do when it comes to protecting children from savvy smut-peddlers? Security Supersite Editor Larry Seltzer weighs the options and suggests measures that provide at least partial protection.

I was helping a very non-technical friend of mine with his computers recently, and I asked him if he was interested in setting up a home network. He was putting computers in his daughters rooms, and I figured theyd want Internet access. I offered free setup and even some free equipment. He declined because hes concerned about them having that much unsupervised access to the Net.

My own daughter is only 11 months old, so I dont have to get too worked up about it. And I run a pretty sophisticated managed network here, so when shes older, Ill be able to lock down her system through a variety of means that are inaccessible to regular consumers like my friend. Ive never seriously looked at whats available to people like him. Do they have real options to protect their kids from the vile and threatening stuff out there? I looked very quickly at some of the higher profile solutions available and I feel sorry for consumers. What a world! When I was this age my parents may have worried about me watching too much TV, but that stuff was just stupid, not dangerous.

One thing Im sure of: If the kids are smart and saavy about software and the Net and determined to get past whatever blocks Dad puts up, they can get through. (Im also sure that relatively few kids are this capable, at least before high school.)

But some of the more effective techniques are likely to be frustrating to kids and parents. Consider whitelists for e-mail, about which Ive written lately. In a way its perfect: You get to decide with whom your kid can exchange e-mail. If your chids address gets picked up on some porno-spam list, the mail will get blocked.

It also means youre going to have to maintain the list. I have no personal experience with this, but I have a feeling that maintaining white lists for your kid could be tough. If they give you an e-mail address to add to the list, should you confirm that its who they say it is? How exactly do I do that? Am I supposed to start sending e-mail and instant messages to their friends asking them if theyre really little girls and eight years old? I dont think so.

There are a variety of third-party packages you can buy and run like Norton Internet Security or the famous Net Nanny. PC Magazine recently looked at Net Nanny and was impressed by how powerful and flexible it is, but my quick impression is that this job is still more difficult than most parents can handle. Im intimidated by it, and software hardly scares me.

Both Norton Internet Security and Net Nanny handle only POP3 mail, but the most popular non-POP3 systems out there (AOL and MSN) have their own parental controls. (I suppose maybe Hotmail is very popular and has no such controls, but giving a kid a Hotmail account is like giving him a subscription to Hustler.)

AOL and MSN have both put a lot of work into their parental controls. You can control which chat rooms and instant-messenger users your child can converse with. (Did you know that you allegedly have to be 13 years old to use AIM? I can assure you that rule is being broken widely.)

Maybe self-contained environments like AOL and MSN are the best option, since you seem to get better control through them. And if your kid doesnt realize that she can also load a separate browser, you really can control where she goes. Its still up to you to do all that management of your childs Internet access, but theres one interface for it.

The real answer to this, I suspect: If your kid is cooperative and not the kind to go exploring places you tell him not to go, the software solution can be effective. If your kid likes to go looking for trouble, maybe you should emulate my friend and keep the computer in the kitchen where you can keep an eye peeled.

Security Supersite Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.