In response to my recommendation that a child's computer in his or her room should not have Internet access, or should have a highly restricted kid-safe Internet environment, a reader asks,
I have a 7-year-old daughter and I allow her to access the internet for research projects that she occasionally does at school and access to sites like Disney, PBS Kids, etc. Are you saying that this is wrong? Why? I feel it is a great learning tool.
Discovering the great web sites and online learning tools for kids is one of the joys of family computing. My children love using the Internet, and it has been a tremendous help at homework time. But, the sad truth is that one mistyped URL, such as whitehouse.com or girls.com, can expose your child to pornography in a second.
Another serious problem is the proliferation of malware - browser hijackers, trojans, adware, spyware. Computer novices are easy targets for the people who want to trick you into infecting your computer with malicious software.
We have to be smart, and that means protecting our children when they are online. I advocate two different approaches to online safety - one is for a family computer that is in a common area of the home and is used by both adults and children, and the other is for a child computer that is in his or her room and is used primarily by the child.
Safety Recommendations for the Family Computer
When your child wants to use the Internet, it should be done on the family computer. Then, parents can monitor the child's surfing and prevent any potentially unsafe encounters with people, web sites, and computer programs. We take a multi-layer approach; maybe not the perfect option, but I find that it's necessary to ensure my kids' safety online and to protect us from the headaches of computer malware.
Level One - Hardware firewalls protect your home computer from hacker attacks that use automated bots to search for personal computer vulnerabilities, particularly in computers that are connected by broadband access with a static IP address. Learn more about hardware firewalls from How Stuff Works.
Firewall software programs are also necessary to extend your protection from intrusion to the PC. If you have the Windows XP operating system on your computer and have installed Service Pack 2, you have the very basic level of firewall protection. Experts recommend that you go the next step to a third party firewall software program. Software firewalls are included in the security suites discussed in Level Two.
Level Two - Security software is an absolute necessity on the family computer. PC security suites include personal firewall, anti-virus, parental controls, privacy, and email security programs. Popular security suites include Norton Internet Security, McAfee Internet Security, Zone Alarm, or Trend Micro's PC-cillin. We have the latest Norton Internet Security suite on our computer, but still became infected with malicious software. Luckily, a friend recommended Pest Patrol, which cleaned up our malware problem quickly. Both Norton and Pest Patrol are set to scan our computer regularly.
Level Three - Safe surfing is your goal when sharing the family computer with children. We use a double-edged sword by enabling Parental Controls on our security software and setting our Google preferences to SafeSearch. For another level of pop-up protection, we use the Google Toolbar. At homework time, we don't get our best results using Google, unless we are looking for something very specific. When we want to search on a homework topic, we use one of these Kid-Safe Search options. The results are both safe and more age-appropriate for a young child's needs.
Now, you have a reasonable level of security to let your child surf to their favorite web sites and search for homework help on the family computer while you keep a close watch and open communication about what they find online.
But, what about the child's computer?
You need to go even further to protect your child on a computer that is being used in the child's room or anywhere that is not supervised. My recommendation is that you purchase the edutainment and homework help software your child will use, and leave Internet access off completely. If you wish to allow some Internet surfing for games or educational enrichment, then certainly you should invest in a restricted, kid-safe Internet environment for maximum protection. Solutions such as Crayon Crawler and Kidsafe Explorer are kid-safe browsers that limit access to only the most reliably safe kid web sites.
These services and programs are a hassle to override, making them impractical for your general family surfing. That's why I suggest the above strategy for your family computer and the restricted environment for your child computer.