As the father of two young teens, I often worry about where my kids' Internet searches might inadvertently take them or what viruses they might download by innocently clicking on an unsecured webpage or by clicking on a malware-laden spam e-mail attachment.
Short of not allowing your child access, there really is no way to guarantee your kids will never be exposed to the seamier side of the Internet. That said, there are three simple and free things parents can do to make for a safer more enjoyable Internet experience: Set up parental controls using OpenDNS; create separate user accounts for each person in the house; and optionally, consider setting up Windows Parental Controls for each user account.
The following is an overview of each task.
Filtering out objectionable content
To reduce the possibility that my kids will land on webpages that contain racist, violent or pornographic material or other objectionable content, I employ the free OpenDNS Home service.
OpenDNS, which can be set up in a matter of minutes, is a web content filtering which lets home owners determine what type of content can be viewed by computer users on your home network. OpenDNS segments content on the Internet into over 50 subject categories including such red light topics as academic fraud, alchohol, hate/discrimination, pornography, drugs and gambling along with less entertainment topics as games, movies, social networking, humour and television. Open DNS offers four preset levels of web content filtering: No filtering, Low, Medium and High.
The low setting blocks four categories: Tasteless (which include such subjects as mutilation, torture, horror, or the grotesque) along with proxy/anonymizer, sexuality and pornography while the high setting blocks 26 categories including instant messaging, social networking, video sharing and lingerie/bikini.
I found the low setting to not be restrictive enough because it did not block hate/discrimination, weapons and adware sites. The moderate setting was too restrictive for my liking since the block on lingerie and bikini sites meant I couldn't get to the Sports Illustrated website so I choose to use the custom setting which allows users to pick and choose which categories, if any, to block.
Now when anyone in our home tries to access a prohibited site, they receive a message telling them the site is blocked and to contact me if they think it's a mistake. OpenDNS provides an easy to use online interface which allows users to manage individual domains to ensure that specific sites are always blocked or always allowed.
There are three steps required to get the OpenDNS service up and running. First you will need to create a free account with the service, then make a small change to in the configuration of your home router and finally download and install a small piece of software that is necessary to make it all work. None of these steps is onerous and should only take a few minutes to complete.
Preventing Malware from being loaded on your computer
Before going further, let me remind all readers that any computer connecting to the Internet should be running a security suite of software and have their firewall turned on. By now, this advice should be obvious to everyone regardless of whether you have children or not. For Windows users, I recommend Microsoft Security Essentials because its effective and its free. Mac users often argue that they don't need such software but I still recommend the free Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac Home Edition.
Assuming you have security suite of software installed, the best defence for preventing unwanted software from getting loaded onto your computer is to create a separate user account for everyone using the computer.
A user account is a collection of information that tells Windows or OS X which files and folders a person can access and more importantly what changes that user can make to the computer.
In Windows, there are three types of users accounts: Administrator, Standard and Guest (User accounts on the Mac are similar and are explained in the link provided below). The person who controls the computer and determines what software can be installed on the computer, typically Mom or Dad, should be set-up as an administrator.
Kids and any other users should be set-up as Standard accounts. These accounts can carry out most everyday computing tasks but they are restricted to their own personal files and more importantly they are unable to carry out potentially hazardous actions such as adding new software to the computer. Standard accounts can install new software if they know the Administrators password so make sure that information is kept secret.
Guest accounts are optional and tend to be the most restrictive.
Optional: Setting up Parental Controls
Once you have created a user account for each child in Windows you can further control access by turning Parental Controls on. (See this link at the Microsoft site for more details).
I don't use Windows Parental Controls because they are less about security and more about controlling when kids can access the computer and what programs they can use on the computer. If you wish to set time limits on when your children use the computer, how long they can use it or what programs they have access to then consider Windows Parental Controls. It should be noted that Windows built-in parental controls also allows you to restrict the websites that children can visit. I recommend just using OpenDNS but you may wish to use this option if you have a younger child who access should be even more restricted than the rest of the household.
Hugh Thompson is a Consumer Electronics enthusiast, writer, Internet Marketing Consultant, and former owner of Digital Home, a consumer electronics news and information website. As a voice for the Canadian consumer, Hugh is a frequent guest on radio and television programs across the country discussing the latest in consumer electronics.