Finally: Free Options for Parents to Control and
Filter Computer Use -- Part 2
In this second
installment looking at inexpensive ways to keep control over your computer,
we'll offer two more solutions that will both help you filter content your
children are looking at on the Internet and help you control the amount of time
they spend on the computer.
Unless you are a bit of a technology junkie, this idea may be a bit difficult to
get your head around. Every time you use the Internet, you make use of what's
called a Domain Name Service or DNS. Think of it as an electronic telephone book
for the Internet. Each Internet server/website has it's own IP address -- a
cryptic series of numbers that identifies that particular server on the
Internet. When I wrote this article, the Parents Television Council's web
server's IP address was 220.127.116.11. Every computer on the Internet has one of
these numbers, including yours.
The problem is when
we look for a website, we don't want to remember a strange number. Instead, we
want to type in www.parentstv.org and have the site appear. DNS handles this for
us. It looks up the name of the site, and then sends you to the right computer.
In 2005, DNS expert
David Ulevitch decided to improve DNS in a few areas, one of them being the idea
that a DNS server could do double-duty as a front line filter for Internet
content. Since then, he has established a company that offers this service for
free. The catch? If you go to a blocked site or misspell the name of the site
you were intending to visit (something else that OpenDNS helps correct) the
service displays a page informing you of the blocked site or incorrectly entered
address. At the bottom of the page are advertising links that are provided in
context with the information you were seeking. (Don't worry -- I tested it by
trying to access some pornography sites. The sites were blocked and the ads on
the blocking pages were not porn related.)
OpenDNS, you go to
www.opendns.com and follow the instructions. Even though it is somewhat
technical, they have excellent documentation.
The big plus with
OpenDNS is you can apply it on individual computers by simply changing the
computer's network settings, or -- even better -- you can change the DNS
settings on your household router. Doing this is like putting a water filter on
the incoming pipe -- you now have filtered Internet on every computer in your
home. (Again, the OpenDNS website walks you through the instructions for dozens
of routers.) It doesn't require you to install anything on your individual
machines, although there is a small piece of software you may install
that will keep OpenDNS up to date if your Internet provider changes your IP
Another plus --
you can check statistics by signing into your free OpenDNS account and logging
in to your "Dashboard" from any computer on the Internet and see what your
network has been used for. From here you may change what content categories you
wish to have blocked (games, adult sex sites, gambling, etc.), and specify
specific sites to include or exclude.
An extra cool
feature is being able to set "shortcuts." So if you visit the Parents Television
Council website frequently, you could enter PTC as a shortcut, and it would take
you here. Like the other functions, this would work on every computer, browser
or even wireless device in your home -- so even iPhones would be content
filtered (but only if they use their WiFi connection, of course).
biggest downfall to OpenDNS is Google searches. It cannot force Google (or other
search portals) into a more restrictive mode. So, for example, if you search for
a sexually explicit term, Google will still return the sites, but if you click
on them they will likely be blocked by OpenDNS. The bigger problem is Google's
image search. If you ask for images of a sexually explicit keyword term, they
come through unfiltered. Again, the actual site itself will likely not load, but
the small thumbnail images will.
doesn't offer any methods for controlling the amount of time someone can spend
on an individual computer, or using the Internet, nor can you restrict Internet
access during certain times of the day or night.
In the end, if you
have multiple computers in your home and can live with the limitations of
OpenDNS, you won't find a simpler (or cheaper) solution that can be deployed
throughout your home.
and Apple OS X Leopard:
The final filtering
solution is to simply use what may already be inside your computer. Windows
Vista and Apple's Leopard operating systems both offer a degree of parental
control over use of the computer and Internet. And, if you are still happy with
Windows XP, you can add free parental tools from Microsoft's web site.
Vista, go to the Parental Controls section of Vista's control panel. There you
can discover how you can apply different filtering and control options to
accounts your children use on the computer. Remember, if you want each child to
have their own customized settings, you will need to make sure they each have
their own login name and password. That's the recommended method, as this not
only allows you specific control, but also lets you view what each child has
been doing while on the machine.
Like some of the
other free filtering options we've discussed, Vista provides a list (albeit a
short one) of categories on which you can set Internet content standards. (We
were unable to test these, as our one Vista computer already has a commercial
filtering service installed. I tried uninstalling the service to revert to
Vista's built-in functions. Everything appeared to work correctly, but no matter
what settings I selected, I was still unable to block prominent pornographic
sites, like Playboy. If you decide to go with Vista's free controls after using
a commercial provider, keep this in mind. Test your computer to make sure it is
reports I found, Vista also only filters content viewed through Internet
Explorer 7. Unlike the other solutions we have discussed, which work with all
browsers, this may give your kids an easy workaround if they know to download a
different brand of web browser.
offers some basic usage controls. You can see a "map" of a week and you can
determine when a particular user can or cannot use the computer. You may also
block out certain programs or games (if you have an additional browser on your
computer, this would be a good time to make sure it is on your child's banned
software list) and select what game ratings you will allow to be played.
XP users also have
access to similar controls through a
special download found on Microsoft's web site. "Windows Live Family Safety"
adds much of the parental control functionality you have available in Windows
Vista to good 'ol Windows XP. You need a Windows Live account for each user
(they are free) and then you install the "Family Safety" software on your
computer, and you're in business. While I didn't personally try the Windows XP
solution, Microsoft's site also says the software provides Activity Reports
about your child's use of the computer.
I wish I had been
successful in testing the Microsoft alternatives, as I have questions. For
instance, I'm not sure how easy it is to provide temporary access to a
questionable site, nor do I know if you can extend a user's time privileges
easily without making permanent changes to the schedule.
Finally, for Apple
users, with the most recent release of the Apple operating system -- OS X 10.5
or "Leopard" -- parental controls have been given greater emphasis. Like Vista,
you may filter sites based on a list from "somewhere" (I suspect all of these
filtering solutions are "wholesaling" their filter lists from similar sources),
but the Apple filtering solution is either "on" or "off." There is no list of
customizable categories. The only way you can personalize the experience is by
manually adding sites to an allowed or disallowed list -- a tedious process.
That being said, we
personally use Apple computers in our home, and have been quite happy with the
filtering. It even appears to nab inappropriate YouTube videos -- something even
paid filters are having a difficult time with. It also works with any browser on
the computer (Apple's Safari, Firefox or Opera, for example). However there are
no provisions for allowing temporary access to a blocked site. The only solution
is to add it to the allowed list.
However, this is
made a little easier through another nice feature: The ability to log into your
child's account from another Mac in your home and make any adjustments to the
filtering or time allocations. You can also monitor what they have been looking
at and how much time they have been spending on particular programs.
Apple also provides
a scheduling restrictor along with a "time bank." This allows parents to both
schedule time when the computer may be used (say, between 4 PM and 6 PM on
weekdays) and for how long. So, if you have an eight hour allowed time window,
you can limit total computer use to (for example) two hours within that time.
If you have an
Apple computer with an older operating system, you can easily upgrade to Leopard
at a relatively reasonable cost. (Apple sells "Family Pack" updates that greatly
reduce the outlay if you have multiple Macs in your home.)
Looking at each of
these "free" options, each one has its pros and cons. The controls built into
the operating systems are probably the least flexible and offer the fewer
features, yet they require absolutely no effort on your part other than to
activate them. On the other hand, the K9 solution is easy to install and gives
you functions that compete with filters you would pay annual subscriptions for.
OpenDNS is novel in that your router can become the filter for every computer in
your home. Finally, Glubble provides the best "hand holding" experience for a
very young user, and could be combined with some of these other solutions.
Frankly, I feel
Internet filtering is a must for any child with access to a computer. I'm
grateful we finally have options that will allow all parents an opportunity to
implement these important restrictions in their home without regard to cost. If
you are still wondering if Internet filtering is something you can afford, wait
Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
Television Council -
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