The Internet… Do YOU Know Where YOUR Children Are?

One evening this week at the dinner table Theresa and I were discussing some of the steps that we took to protect Aaron (our nine year old) while he surfs the Internet.  He piped up that he did NOT like any of these measures, and I told him that he had better get used to them, because they are not going away.

I didn't think any more about it until I heard a discussion on the radio this week about an Internet predator who had been caught and sentenced to a long stint in prison, and what he had done.  I am happy that he was caught, but I feel horrible for his victims who will not recover from their trauma so easily.  The hosts discussed how it is important to protect your children, but that they did not trust the tools that are available to help parents.

Now granted I am not an 'average' computer user, and it will be a long time before Aaron becomes more tech-savvy than I am, but I thought about some of the tools that I use – both currently and planned – and realized that we can protect him to an extent, but no matter what protection we offer his mother and I will have to remain vigilant.  As he does grow with the Internet, we will have to monitor what he does, what sites he goes to, and even who he chats with.

When I installed the family computer last Autumn there were certain things that I did without thinking:

1) I created different User Accounts: One for me (I am the administrator and do not use the computer for day to day use), one for Theresa (who has elevated privileges and can do anything she has to do), and one for Aaron with reduced privileges.  Theresa's and my accounts are both password protected, and I have enabled auditing to see if he does try to hack in when we are not around.  Aaron's account is not password protected.

2) I installed Windows Live Family Safety.  This is a great free tool that ties the computer (not the user account) to a Live ID, and when any of us want to log onto the Internet we first have to sign onto that Live ID.  Theresa and I both know that password, and we have given it to the babysitter as well.  We do not want to hinder Aaron's computer use, we just want to know what he is doing.

Windows Live Safety also allows us to monitor what sites Aaron visits, and block any sites that are not 'kid friendly.' 

3) In Windows Vista I enabled Parental Controls on Aaron's account, offering us a second layer of protection for rated sites, as well as limiting what games he can play, and what hours he can use the Internet.

4) Aaron loves changing his screen savers and desktop background; he is visual and artistic, and to date he happens to like sports car backgrounds.  Unfortunately before I came along he also (inadvertently) liked to install screen savers that contained virii.  He also seemed to install every Internet Explorer toolbar that he could find.  To counter that I installed a good anti-virus software, as well as made sure that Windows Defender is properly enabled and updated to protect unwanted spyware.

But most importantly, especially going forward:

5) We watch him while he is on the computer!  That does not mean that we sit over his shoulder and watch everything he does, but because we know when he is on the computer we make it a point to walk in and look from time to time.  There will come a day that Aaron does get tech-savvy enough to side-step some of the methods I use now… and all that means is I will have to step it up a notch.  Believe me, I know how!

6) Aaron can sit and work or play on the computer in any common area in the house, but he has no right to privacy on it, and is not allowed to bring it into his room, or close the door to whatever room he is in when on the computer.  The fact that the laptop is portable and wireless does not change that.

All of these are methods we have right now… they did not cost anything extra to implement, and frankly they did not require an MCT to set up… but if you do want to make sure it is being done right (or you just want someone to check your work) it might be worthwhile to bring in an IT Professional for an hour to make sure.  Most peoples' children ARE better with computers than they are, and you should make sure that they are not pulling the wool over your eyes.

A number of steps that I am planning to take in the short-term future are a little more advanced, and probably not for the average home:

1) I plan to install a server at home with a Managed Firewall Solution.  Within a few weeks I will finally get around to installing Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2, which comes complete with Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2004.  This will allow me to not only monitor the sites that he is on, but I will actually capture and retain the log files from every chat that he has.  When I do implement this Theresa and I plan to sit him down and explain to him why we are doing this.  We will explain that aside from the fact that he does not have any right to privacy (kids hate that by the way… hold your ground!) his safety is my number one concern.  We will also promise him that we will not invade his privacy unnecessarily, and will never read chat logs from conversations with his grandparents, his aunts, or any friend who we know.  However strangers or friends who we do not know will be read, and if he cannot live with that then he can choose to NOT chat with people we do not know.

2) Theresa & I will from time to time go into his account and make sure that he has not found any way to bypass my security measures.  We will not tell him about this, but we will snoop in the same way we would snoop in his room if we suspected illicit activity.  No right to privacy means just that, and we are not interested in the content for any reason other than his safety.

The bottom line is the Internet can be a dangerous place, much moreso than going out to the mall or the park.  I trust Aaron and do not think he is going out looking for danger, but there are people out there who would look for unsuspecting kids like mine as targets, and I will take every step available to me to protect him.  Just as I do not let him cross the street without holding my hand, or go to the video arcade alone (do kids still do that?), I will not allow him free reign of the Internet.  The Internet is also a wonderful place filled with great people and myriad sites replete with information that he can use to expand that wonderfully hungry nine-year-old mind of his, and I will not keep him from it; he may not like the measures I have taken, and will never admit he feels better holding my hand when he crosses the road…

…but I sleep better for it and so does he, even if he doesn't realize it.


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