CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, October 27, 1997 

Keeping the Internet
Safe at home

In the last Computer Connection column, "Shedding light on the dark side of the Internet", published 10/13/97, I felt a few pangs of guilt, advocating cyber-snooping into the online activities of teens, but "desperate times deserved desperate measures", I rationalized. Since then, the overwhelming response I've received has quickly dissipated any second thoughts.

Since that article ran, I've received many e-mail messages and telephone calls, expressing gratitude for detailing some tools parents can use to monitor online usage and also urgent requests for more detailed information. Moms and dads everywhere are finding themselves completely ill equipped to apply good parenting guidelines to this new electronic playground where the kids truly know more than the adults.

Throughout the feedback I received, there was a common thread: "How can I exercise more control over my child's online use of the computer?" Since the last column focused on tracking-down inappropriate use of online services, here's a more pro-active approach with some preventive steps that you can take before the problems arise.

In America Online you can exert some discipline and control over how your child uses this online resource. Expect your kids to shriek and balk at first, but eventually it will be accepted, grudgingly, just like a Learner's Permit.

You must sign onto AOL as the primary account holder to change any preferences for the screen names in your account. Press CONTROL+K and type the keywords "Parental Controls". Here, you'll see all the screen names in your account as well as the assigned controls over the type of online content accessed through America Online.

A "Child Access" setting is recommended for children up to the age of 12, and will allow access only to content and services found within the Kids Only channel of America Online. Additionally, this will limit any entry to Internet sites accessed through AOL to only those deemed appropriate for this age group.

A Child account cannot send or receive Instant Messages, enter member-created chat rooms, or use premium services. Only text-based e-mail is allowed and no file attachments or downloading are permitted with a Child account.

"Teen" accounts can go anywhere on America Online, and use any America Online feature, but their access to Internet Web sites through America Online is restricted to those sites selected for their age group (13-16). They are also blocked from Internet newsgroups that allow file attachments, and they cannot use premium services.

As the Primary account user, you can customize both Child and Teen accounts. If you want your child to have full access to America Online, for example, but want to prohibit all chat room activity, you can click on Custom Controls and specify exact settings for your child's access to Chat Rooms, Newsgroups, World Wide Web, Downloading and Mail.

The last two options, Downloading and Mail, are very important if you suspect your child might be downloading inappropriate content from the Internet or cavorting with unsavory sorts online. Personally, I don't see any reason children should download anything from the Internet without strict parental approval.

Downloading images, games or other software goes directly to your hard disk and eats away at your valuable storage space. These files are also a prime source of computer viruses that could seriously damage your system. I'd block all AOL Downloads and any FTP file transfers. If the kids need something desperately downloaded, you can sign on with your username and execute the download if it's deemed suitable.

From Custom Controls you can also totally block all e-mail or you can specify the e-mail addresses of people that you authorize your child to communicate with. Therefore, your children can freely exchange electronic correspondence with friends, family or fellow students with you're approval. If new friends come online, these Mail controls can be edited at anytime.

If you connect to the Internet directly, rather than through a service such as AOL, you'll need to install a filtering software application, such as SurfWatch, to stand vigil over your computer when you're not on duty. While there are many filtering applications, SurfWatch is one of the best and most effective. The price is reasonable and regular updates are available. The network version, SurfWatch Proserver, is popular among businesses interested in curbing the extra-curricular surfing activities of on-duty employees.

With a little diligence you can remove temptation and create a safe online environment for your family. After all, there are so many exciting and positive things to discover on the Internet. Let's keep the focus there!

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.
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