Monday, May 16, 2011

Make the Internet Safe for Kids?

Can't be done. The Internet, due to its openness and ease of search and navigation, is by nature not kid friendly.

Let's face it, when you let your kids get on the Internet, you may think you're dropping them off at Disneyland to play or at the library to do homework.  But one block north is the Gay Pride Parade, one block south is Mardi Gras complete with Girls Gone Wild, one block west is a meeting of NAMBLA, and to the east is a Hitler Youth rally.  And let's not even talk about the sky-writing advertising every bad habit on Earth above them. 
A few recent studies highlighted the increasing number of minors who are going on-line and accessing inappropriate content.  They suggest such things as making robust age verification using such information as credit card numbers mandatory.  Good luck with that.  The Internet is truly global, and as soon as you make site owners in the United States pay to use credit cards to verify identity, they'll move offshore faster than you can say 'pr0n' and little to nothing to keep young eyeballs off of their sites.

Folks, there is no magic bullet to keeping your kids away from inappropriate content.  Parents need to use technology as a tool to monitor and control their kids' use of the Internet at home, but they cannot abandon their responsibilities by installing a piece of software and walking away.

What we do in our home is this:
  • The kids cannot use a computer while we are not at home.  Most modern OS's have parental controls that can limit when a given user can use the computer.
  • All computer use by the kids must be done in the dining room or the living room.
  • Girlie Bear's cell phone has an internet browser, but I've worked with the phone company to not allow her to send or receive data or text messages.
  • Her netbook runs Ubuntu, which not only negates the risk from a lot  of the malware out there, but also makes it harder for her to get advice from her friends on how to thwart my efforts.
  • I've installed Dans Guardian on her computer, and regularly check the logs of where she's been.
  • I have every password she uses, and check her email and such regularly for hints that anything wrong is happening with her.
  • Our library has a librarian sitting at a raised desk that looks out over the screens of all of the computers.  This discourages most people from looking at whatever it is that tickles their fancy in the library.
  • I'm raising my child to not disobey me.
That last one is the most important.  I know kids are going to be curious, and I know they're going to push limits.  And I'm well aware that she can get onto the Internet when she's at her mother's house or over at a friend's home.  But Girlie Bear knows how I expect her to act, especially when I'm not around. Even as she goes through the rebellious teen years, I will work to make sure she knows how a good person acts, including what they do on-line.

Now, if a child decides to be sneaky, they make all of this work useless, or at least more difficult.  Junior Bear found a chink in my Internet armor almost as soon as he moved to Kentucky from California.  He was freely surfing the net after 'going to bed' for about 6 months before I stumbled on what he was doing.  I set up filtering and logging, and after a couple of weeks, called Junior into the dining room.  To his surprise, his systems adminstrator dad handed him logs of everywhere he'd been going on the Internet for about two weeks, including passwords, emails, and pictures.  Thus began a multi-year jousting match between us, as I found and cut off ways he was abusing his priveleges to use our network, and he got more and more creative in ways of circumventing me during the brief times he wasn't on complete blackout from Internet access at home.  On the plus side, he knows how to make directional wifi antennas so he could tap into a neighboring friend's wireless signal from his bedroom.  On the down side, we fought an exhausting battle of wits during what could have been our best years as father and son.

But the key is that I never gave up, and I never made it easy for him to do things online that I didn't approve of.  Once a child, even a teenager who's almost an adult, figures out that you've grown tired of the struggle, their behavior will become even more reckless and dangerous.  We kept our technological guerilla warfare up until the night before he left for college. 

Luckily for me, I have the experience of bringing a stubborn, willful teenage boy through those years now that I'm embarking on going through them with Girlie Bear.  Hopefully between raising her to not violate some basic rules, monitoring her activities, and having this experience, her time as a teenager on the Internet will be less stressful to her dad.  I'll have other aspects of raising a teenage girl to stress me.

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