Saturday, 5 March 2011

Parental Controls for the home computer

Hello again!

I didn't mean for it to be a couple of weeks between posts, but other mommy chores just kept getting in the way!

Anyway, today we're on to Parental Controls for the home computer (I'll touch on other types of parental controls in later posts).  Parental controls include controlling access to the computer itself (time of day restrictions, total usage time per day, what programs are allowed to run etc.) and Web filtering.

I won't go into much detail on the first part.  If using Windows Vista, Windows 7 or the Mac OS (10.3-10.6), there are some parental controls built in that are usually sufficient for this portion.

As for the Web filtering, you may be familiar with this concept even at your place of work.  Most sizable organisations have by now implemented some form of Web filtering to enforce an internet security policy that they have in place.  What you will implement at home is not really any different, and is suitable for all users of the computer, just with different settings perhaps.

Web filtering can be configured in two basic ways.  It either blocks by category or works with a specific "allowed" list.  The latter is suitable for very young users that will have a limited number of sites to access so that the list is not difficult to manage.  Blocking by category with or without some exceptions is the more common and more flexible way to implement web filtering.  It does however have some draw backs.  New sites and content are created on the internet by the second and the databases and algorithms used to categorize these sites sometimes struggle to keep up.  This means that some sites may get through that shouldn't.  The filtering software may catch up after some time, but it is important to monitor internet usage and not rely too heavily on this important but imperfect tool.

I won't specifically recommend a software package here, but you can check out sites like for a comparison.   You will want to look at much more than the price in any comparison (there are free options too).  Ease and flexibility of configuring is important.  Granularity of categories can be important too.  It will be much easier to be specific in what you want to block and allow using software that has 80 categories as opposed to 10 (a small number of categories with sub-categories is even better).  Once you've configured it, be sure to log in as a non-administrator and try out your settings, try "bad sites" to make sure they are blocked.

When we talk about Web filtering, people automatically envision blocking things like sex and gambling sites, but there is much more to it than that.  Depending on the age of your children, you will want to block different things.  For the younger user ou may want to block social networking, email and chat sites except the ones that you have specifically allowed for example.  You should review all of the available categories and think about them carefully when deciding.  You can of course change your settings as often as you like, but you will likely settle on something and not have to change it very often.

Eventually, your children are going to leave home and be on their own, so you will have no parental controls (not just the computer and internet kind either!)  So, it is important to gradually work toward a solution that is giving the child some responsibility while being accountable.  There are accountability software solutions that monitor internet usage and send a report to an "accountability partner".  This is a good solution for the older teenager/young adult.  You would have this configured to send the report to a parent at first and then encourage them to continue this practice with either you or someone else they feel comfortable keeping them accountable.  We have used this at our house between my husband and myself.  It doesn't mean that you don't trust the other person, it's just a safeguard.

So, to summarize my recommendations are:
  • for the very young, implement an "allowed list" of internet sites
  • once the child needs more flexibility (researching for homework etc.), filter based on good categories
  • as they grow older, put more of the responsibility for their choices on them and use accountability software
Until next time!

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