As it gets easier to access the Internet, it's only getting harder for many parents to accept the idea of letting their kids roam the electronic universe without any safeguards to keep them from the bad stuff out there.
So the idea of turning technology on the problem, in the form of screening software, has a lot of appeal. Just install this one program, the argument goes, and your child will be able to lead a smut-free existence online -- sophisticated filters will catch indecent material before it can land on your screen.
A tempting pitch -- but, as with many things computer-related, the reality isn't so simple. Screening programs can be an excellent idea in certain circumstances; in others, they can become an annoying and ineffective waste of money.
One thing to look at first is the age of the children in question; different children require different degrees of protection, and at a certain point diminishing returns set in.
A very young child ought to be supervised while online, because you just don't know what's out there -- just as you wouldn't drop a 6 year old off at the mall. These kids aren't likely to go out looking for porn; you mainly want to keep them from stumbling across it accidentally. And if they should encounter a reference to a site whose description makes clear it's sexually oriented, you have to explain to them that They Probably Don't Want to Go There.
A 15-year-old boy, on the other hand, probably has the dangerous combination of interest and ability. If a 40-year-old man like me can find flesh online with my diminished hormonal drives, then heaven help you if you think any of these programs could resist the assault of a 17-year-old boy -- who may know more about computers than the adult who installed the blocking software in the first place. (And outside the Internet, plenty of indecent content is readily accessible in magazines, movies and TV.)
Another thing to consider is how likely a child is to run across indecent or obscene content online. It is almost impossible to stumble across hard-core pornography by accident -- most purveyors of that material charge for access to it, meaning you'd need a credit card and an account at a porn site first. What you are likely to run across accidentally are ads for X-rated sites -- either in results from one of the Web search engines or in unsolicited junk e-mail. That's still bad enough, especially in the way it can teach your child an unwanted new vocabulary.
But if you set out to find filth, you probably will succeed quickly. The proportion of smut (and violence and hate) online is probably no larger than in the bookstores and newsstands of a large city, but because the Internet has grown so immense, there's a lot of it out there.
That's the bad news. The good news is that if you decide that filtering software is a good investment, there's plenty to choose from on store shelves. And many online services and Internet service providers offer parental control software as part of the package.
Most of these programs operate in similar ways; they work by matching sites against a list of forbidden locations (a list that can usually be updated online), and several of the programs allow users to decide to block the kinds of material that bother them most, for example saying "yes" to sex but not to hate speech.
We tested five of these programs -- Cyber Patrol, CyberSitter, NetNanny, SurfWatch and X-Stop -- to see how well they filtered out objectionable material, how often they erred in blocking access to a site and how easy they were overall to install and use.
The upshot was, well, the technology still isn't great yet. Online civil libertarians may argue against filtering software on freedom-of-speech grounds, but the problem here has nothing to do with First Amendment protection. It's more about consumer protection.
This set of programs is more effective and less clunky than the lousy first stabs at the problem, but I was able to get to bad stuff through each filtering program -- and each program blocked innocuous stuff that no proper program should block.
-- Cyber Patrol: This is now the program to beat -- it offers power (its filters stopped almost all of my sneak attacks) and flexibility (you can set different levels for different members of your family and it lets you selectively block such topics as sex, drugs, gambling, tobacco and other topics). Its "chat guard" feature will keep kids from sending personal information like real names and addresses over the Internet. But it's not easy to learn, and until you master its many controls you might find that it can get in the way of your own Web surfing by setting time limits on your explorations.
-- Cybersitter: This program is a snap to install and use. But that simplicity comes at a price: The program provides no flexibility to parents who might want to, say, protect their kids from hate speech online but aren't so worried about nudity. Much more troubling, Solid Oak Software, the makers of Cybersitter, has put the Web sites of groups critical of it on the program's banned list.
-- NetNanny: This program would seem to stop trouble before it starts by prohibiting the typing of certain words or phrases, either as part of a Web address or as terms in a Web search. It sounds good, but I recently called a journalist whose work I don't respect a "boob" online, and I have been wanting to find new ways to prepare a spicy chicken "breast." And since you can reach a naughty site by entering its numerical "Internet Protocol" address instead of its English address, the program is relatively easy to defeat.
-- SurfWatch: The first program in the field to gain prominence, it still holds up firmly in the middle of the field. But the company focuses its energies on blocking sexual sites, so parents who are looking to filter out sites where hate speech flourishes or who don't want online liquor ads coming into their homes won't get what they want out of this program.
-- X-Stop: Although this program, which uses a banned-site list compiled by computers instead of humans, is supposed to block only material that meets strict legal standards for obscenity, in practice it screens many innocuous sites. A study last October by anti-censorship activist Jonathan Wallace revealed that it blocks sites of such groups as the American Association of University Women, the AIDS Quilt project and even the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers).
Beyond the question of effectiveness, there's the problem of raw clunkiness. Each of these programs adds another layer of software to your machine -- a layer that sits between you and your family's Web surfing.
For instance, Cyber Patrol, easily the most powerful program I checked out, drove me crazy with out-of-the-blue restrictions on my surfing. As I worked later into the night, the program's time manager would kick me off the Internet. I would have to go back into its control panel and disable it once again to get my work done. I'm sure that with a little time, I would learn to configure it so that I wouldn't have such problems. But it made for some frustrating outings at the start.
An important thing to consider before buying a screening program is what you can do on your own, for free, to reduce the odds that you'll run into objectionable things online.
Picking the right tool is the important thing, especially with those often-useful, often-fallible Web search engines. Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com) is what many people turn to first -- but it's not always the best one, especially when kids are involved. Type the word "eruption" into Yahoo! and the first link to appear is one of its sexually oriented business listings.
Not all search engines work the same way; try looking for "eruption" at the Altavista search service (http://www.altavista.digital.com) and you'll get referrals to several hundred sites, including astronomy, dermatology, dentistry and photos of rocker Eddie Van Halen's truck.
Infoseek (http://www.infoseek.com), which gathers multiple pages from each site under one heading, did even better at finding good volcanic information. C/Net's Snap! Online (http://www.snap.com) even offered original articles that kids could use as a starting point for research. Yahoo! also offers "Yahooligans," a subset of its site especially for kids (http://www.yahooligans.com). It's still a little thin -- searches often turn up too few sites -- but the approach shows promise.
As for Yahoo! itself, if you're worried about finding X-rated links, try LookSmart (http://www.looksmart.com) instead. LookSmart organizes its listings like Yahoo but excludes obscene material.
Even with a lot of careful selection of search engines and screening programs, there's still room for having a long talk with your kids about the kinds of things that can be found online, or on the street for that matter. The kind of talk that everyone ought to have with their kids, the one that lays out what sorts of things your family does and does not do.
It's a long conversation: If you do it right, it goes on for years. True, it might be easier to just pay forty bucks for a program that saves you the trouble of repeatedly telling your child why he or she shouldn't click on illicit ads or links online. But then that, too, raises questions about responsibility and choices.
One reason that conversation goes on is that new technology brings new potential problems. Take, for instance, the X-rated photos distributed over parts of Usenet, a set of online discussion forums. Viewing these encoded, segmented files was once difficult -- but Donna Hoffman of Vanderbilt University, a longtime scholar of the online world, was recently surprised to see how easy it was on her new WebTV, which automatically grabbed all segments of a photo, decoded them and put the image right up on the TV screen. (WebTV is not alone; America Online and Netscape's software, for instance, make this task just as easy.)
But Hoffman said the issue was not anyone's program, but her own responsibility as a parent.
"If my son were to get in trouble on WebTV, it wouldn't be because of WebTV," Hoffman argued. "It would be because of our failure as parents to educate him about proper conduct on the Internet and in the physical world."