Originally created 03/14/03

Keeping kids safe on the Internet



There's NetNanny, Cyber Snoop and SOS Kidproof.

But for Lewis Foster, there's no replacement for D.O.D. - Dear Old Dad."I tell them it is a tool; it can be abused," he said. "I tell them they are smart and know how to make the right decision."

And then he checks the list of Internet sites his 16-year-old and 13-year-old have visited.

For Foster, monitoring, limiting and controlling the world on the web is a major part of his life: it's part of his job as Information Technology for Columbia County and it's his responsibility as a father.

With more and more children going online, parents should be even more wary of the Internet than they are of television: The World Wide Web spreads far beyond on-line encyclopedias and educational resources. There's some sick stuff out there - just a few mouseclicks or keystrokes away from your youngster.

It's that accidental access that's so disturbing to parents.

"If they click on something that comes up as a pop-up advertisement, the next thing you know they are on that site," Foster said.

Even something as innocent sounding as Bambi can turn up off-color results on Internet search engines like Yahoo, AltaVista and Google. And don't ever try researching beavers.

So what's a parent to do?

First off, parents have got to distinguish between right and wrong with their children - long before a child accesses a computer.

Once that's out of the way, parents should always use the content controls built into most Internet browser software. Parents can also randomly check the browser history - a list of the sites visited in the past.

And, of course, parents can always surf with their kids and set access guidelines.

Foster limits his children's online time to research - no chatting, very little email.

"The chatrooms and all that, people can be things they are not," he said. "I tell my children ŒIf you need to chat, pick up the phone and call somebody."' The importance of keeping kids safe online has even caught the attention of major Internet Service Providers. Both America online and Microsoft have included extra safeguards for parents in their latest editions. And there are some ISP's aimed at keeping kids safe on the web.

For example, Kennesaw, Ga.-based SafeBrowse.com offers monthly internet service packages that are based on what company president Shane Kenny calls "flexible filtering." Kenny says the company's software allows parents to go beyond blocking pornographic and hate sites. There's also options to block keywords like lingerie, swimsuits and certain entertainment categories - sites that fall into the "gray area," said Kenny.

"We want families to be able to decide what they want to see on the internet," he said, adding that the filter is 98 percent successful in blocking inappropriate sites.

SafeBrowse.com also offers an online video of tips for parents dealing with ways to keeps kids safe on the information superhighway. The company has more than 2,000 users nationwide, and user feedback has been across the board - ranging from those that wish they would have found it years ago to those that think the service filters too much.

"There are other ISP's out there that offer a content filter that we call a one size fits all filter: They block these 13 categories whether you like it or not," Kenny said. "We saw a need for more flexible scenario."

The company also offers Safeeyes, filter software that works with DSL or cable connections. Kenny said his company would probably never offer high-speed Internet service - "It's a mess. We've already tried it." - but the filter was the next best thing.

And there is some other technology-based help. Columbia County uses a filter similar to SafeBrowser.com called Websense, which rates sites (much like movies are rated) and sorts them into categories ranging from adult, to religious, to race, to gambling and others. While the program catches about 95 percent of inappropriate material, it is not foolproof.

"They come out with new sites every day," Foster said. "There's no way every site is going to be correctly rated."

While Websense caters to the corporate world, there is a lot of filtering software out there. Programs like like NetNanny, Cyber Patrol and Cyber Sitter are available at most stores, while other programs are available for free on the internet. The programs allow parents to monitor and block access to Internet sites.

Chris Norris, the minister of music at West Acres Baptist Church in Columbia County, started with America Online, but that program was too lax. Now he uses the 711Online service to protect his three children - Drew, 9, Rachel, 7 and Benjamin, 2 - from the dark side of the Internet.

"My kids can be on the Internet and I don't really have to watch them," he said. "I don't get pop-ups, I don't get ugly emails. I've never gotten anything offensive on my computer at home. It's really allowed us to use the internet a good bit."

The service, he said, blocks information at the source - not at the home computer. That way, kids can't bypass the protection to purview porn. Norris and his wife Jenifer have even tried to get past the system, checking to see if they could access adult sites.

"It blocks it very quickly and says this is an inappropriate site and gives you a reason," he said.

But the service has been too restrictive in some cases. For example, Norris tried to access a website that allows online photo storage. However, some of the pictures on some of the pages were a little racy, and 711OnLine stepped in. He's since contacted the service about the site and can now access only the family-friendly sections.

For the Norrises, the Internet is more than a place to play game or read news. The Norris children are home-schooled and must do research. So the family computer is set up in the family room - in plain view of everyone.

"Whatever someone is looking at on that computer, anyone can walk in unannounced without any problems because we have confidence in our children and the service," he said.

While Foster has eschewed filter programs and internet blockers at his house, he's still pretty confident his children are safe surfing. After all, he's spent years working to keep them that way.

"You've got to teach kids what's right and wrong," he said.