If you’ve been on the internet for any length of time, you probably feel like its main purpose is to distribute pornography, drug ads, and questionable financial solicitations. If you’ve got kids, you’re probably also worried about pedophiles, cyber-stalkers, bullies, and other nefarious net inhabitants.
While things aren’t nearly as bad as the press might make it out to be, it is bad enough.
What’s a responsible parent to do?
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
- Parenting is more important than software.
- Monitoring software allows you to track activity.
- Filtering tools try to control what is and is not allowed.
- Any tool is easily bypassed by the motivated.
First, I need to be clear about something: in my opinion, technology is no substitute for parental involvement.
If you honestly can’t trust your child on the internet, then no technology in the world is going to fix that. As we’ll see below, at best you can slow your child down, but you certainly can’t prevent them from accessing things that go against your wishes. That’s a parenting issue that needs attention away from the computer.
End of sermon.
Internet monitoring software simply records the activity taking place on your computer.
It’s normally hidden, and works in the background to keep track of several types of activities. This type of software typically tracks websites visited, but can often also record email sent and received, as well as instant messages and chats.
The tools either store the recorded information on the computer on which they’re installed, or send the information to another computer, or to an online service, for access by the parent wanting to keep track.
While many might consider this a bit of a “Big Brother” approach (in fact, one of the tools is even named that) it can be an appropriate way to monitor without controlling.
Internet filtering software takes a more active role by blocking or “filtering out” content that is deemed objectionable, be it webpages, email, or other forms of communication. Most have password overrides and many have updated databases to track the ever-changing landscape of what is and is not objectionable, not unlike spam filtering.
The problem with internet filtering is much like the problem with spam filtering: false positives. The classic case is that internet filtering software may prevent access to legitimate sources of information regarding, say, “breast cancer”.
Most are configurable to a point.
What is “objectionable”, anyway?
Just like spam filters, internet filters are not perfect. Not only will they occasionally block legitimate content, but they’ll also occasionally let inappropriate content through as well.
Perhaps even more difficult to deal with, not everyone’s definition of what is and is not “objectionable” is the same.1
You simply can’t rely on internet filters to be completely effective, or to match your definition of what is and is not appropriate.
For every action…
For the determined, there are ways around everything.
In what I consider to be a most ironic turn of technology, the tools and techniques that allow dissidents in oppressive countries to bypass government restrictions can be used by kids, or anyone for that matter, to bypass the restrictions put into place by others.
And finally, whatever restrictions or monitoring you put into place on your computer are trivially bypassed when your child visits a friend’s house, or in some cases, even visits a library.2
I don’t have specific tools to recommend in this space.
My recommendation would be to look into parenting groups online, especially on social media, and see if your peers have specific recommendations and experiences to share.
Perhaps my most important recommendation, though, is not to trust or rely on software to fix what is ultimately a parenting issue.
If you found this article helpful, I'm sure you'll also love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and give you more confidence with technology. Subscribe now and I'll see you there soon,