Our “virtual family, “Dad’s” perspective and input on
controlling digital media
For good or bad, technology is becoming more and more prevalent in every area of our life. Children are being exposed to it more and more, and at incredibly young ages.
By all measures, our 13-year old boy is a smart, responsible, well-behaved teenager—a fact kindly reinforced by neighbors and friends as he babysits their children and shovels snow off driveways without being asked. When he’s not outside, you’ll find our son facing a flat-screen: the HDTV, typing on a keyboard, or testing his skills on a videogame.
My wife and I want to encourage his digital connectivity, but at the same time protect his exposure to inappropriate content, contact with strangers, and spam that can lead to harmful results.
As a young boy, I remember doing things that went beyond parental approval, especially of the peer pressure variety. As a parent, you’ve probably experienced one of those awkward instances when you find yourself interrupting a not-for-dad’s-eyes moment. Your child could have been alone or with a friend, and it more than likely involved snickering and whispering while watching a late-night TV show or computer screen. Unless there’s specific proof, your first gut reaction is something’s just not kosher.
Dealing with your child is a personal matter. However, when it comes to today’s digital media, I suggest you be prepared. First, limiting their exposure, creating boundaries and setting down rules are great places to start. At our home, the TV is turned off during meal times. The kids are on the computer one hour a day. Our cars are text-free zones except when on trips and family time is aggressively. If simple measures such as these are not established you will quickly loose your kid to a two-dimensional world.
Now for the good news and the bad news about parental computer controls. The good news is that there is so much already available, much of it very capable for little or no investment. The bad news is there’s so much available.
You can spend countless hours studying and configuring what’s available for purchase or already canned. I believe most parents need to better understand where these devices can be installed and just how easy it is to establish a frontline defense. Please understand that installing or setting up controls today does not mean you are finished. Much like police radar guns and civilian radar detectors, this will be an ever-evolving parental responsibility. Like we as parents need another thing on our “parent to-do” list! So, let’s start with:
1) Know what pieces you can effect
2) Learn how to make/establish simple road blocks
3) Develop a game plan
First, there are three main areas you can control with relatively easy do-it-yourself controls: the computer, the browser and applications.
Your computer, be it a PC or a Macintosh, has the ability to create a “user profile” that manages where one can and cannot go. Depending on your computer, the Control Panel or System Preferences creates a “new” user with which you can determine the available websites, appropriate email correspondences and even available applications. New users will login with their own password. This login can be set and locked to prevent changes unbeknownst to the user. Understanding how the System Preference feature works allows you to create separate user profiles for your son or daughter allowing them to log into the computer with preset boundaries and simple roadblocks. The key to sharing a computer is that everyone needs to login and remember to log out after usage.
Certainly inexpensive, the hardware option has its own limitations such as keeping passwords secret. And it does not address these new hand-held computers very well, for example the Apple iPad or any other such devices. These devices are but smaller versions of our desktop computers. However, they come with slimmer versions of the same software. So, our second line of defense, or offense, is setting provisions within the browser.
Browsers, are the computer screens to the internet. Windows has Explorer and Apple uses Safari, but there are many other browsers available, i.e. Firefox. All of these have “settings” and tools you can use to better monitor usage.
If you as a parent are not familiar with the history tool, quickly become so. This simple and easy tool can transform
you into the family computer guru, especially to new computer/internet users. At the top of most browsers is a menu item labeled “History,” Unless it has been erased you can track where someone has been on the internet, the sites and pull up actual pages visited. For Internet Explorer users this feature is found under the “Go” menu at the top of the page.
Browsers also have settings within them. These can help set limits and prevent the wrong responses being pulled from an innocent search. Most browsers allow a quick check of a button to limit or filter searches to exclude explicit text and images. In addition, some have an additional feature which restricts other user’s ability to change the preferences.
In Google it is referred to as “locking SafeSearch.”
If setting preferences on your computer and/or within the browser is not within your comfort level, then look to purchasing software you can load onto the computer. Good reviews are provided online for Safe Eyes, Windows Vista Parental Controls, CyberPatrol and Net Nanny. Each does a good job of blocking questionable websites and monitoring kids’ online usage, but each program has a different advantage.
In addition, there are websites willing to teach more adventurous parents how to create their own computer code which routes computer searches away from unsuspecting sites. If interested, do a web search on “PAC” files or “Proxy Auto Configuration files.” These “spyware” programs run in the background and do everything from recording
screenshots to blocking websites from venturing onto your computer.
There are obviously costs associated with any and all of these frontline defenses, most of which involve your time and willingness to understand. But, with a little website research you should effectively find a level of security that meets your requirements. As in the police radar gun analogy, parents will periodically modify, add and/or delete aspects of any of the three components that you can comfortably affect.
Remember, technological advancements are a byproduct of an industrial society. Therefore we cannot ignore its presence, rather learn to deal with it in a capacity that fits within the family’s comfort level. And, if it is any consolation
your kids will manage similar affairs as technology continues to progress.