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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.

 

Open DNS: 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 66.28.247.136. 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.)

 

To implement 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 address.

 

 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).

 

Probably the 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.

 

Finally, OpenDNS 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.

 

Windows Vista/XP 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.

 

Beginning with 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 indeed filtering.)

 

According to 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.

 

Finally Vista 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.)

 

Wrapping Up...

 

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 no longer.

 

Rod Gustafson


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.


Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org


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