My kids (ages 11 and 9) are getting more and more familiar with the internet, and enjoy spending time on the computer. Mainly they play games and watch funny YouTube videos (“Simon’s Cat” is their favourite), but a few times Ryan has mentioned facebook and chat rooms and instant messaging and such, and they are both heavily into a game called Minecraft, which is all the rage these days. They have gone to message boards and watched videos on how to mod the games, and recently Nicky wanted help in downloading a mod which required modifying .jar files. There’s enough scary stuff on the internet that I’m getting less and less comfortable with them just perusing at their leisure, so I looked into various parental control software packages.
Step one was made a couple of years ago and was amazingly simple. I set up a free account on OpenDNS.com and changed my router to use it for DNS rather than my ISP. Not only is it faster, but they have controls that filter various categories, so I selected things like porn, nudity, adware, dating, gambling, hate, and a few others. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to get to these sites, just that if you try to get to bigboobs.com, the DNS server will simply not tell you where it is. (bigboobs.com is just an example I
grabbed chose at random. Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a real web site.) The DNS setting is done on the router, which means it applies not only to the computers, but the Wii, Ryan’s iPod Touch, and anything else we add in the future. That was a very easy first step and blocks a fair bit of the stuff I don’t need my kids seeing. As part of research for this article I actually went to bigboobs.com to make sure OpenDNS was blocking it. It wasn’t, so I had to fix my OpenDNS settings. I guess I will have to visit bigboobs.com periodically from now on, just to make sure everything is still working. With OpenDNS, I mean.
Step two has been ongoing for a while, though it seems to be at least temporarily solved. I’m looking for a software package that will allow me to monitor and limit my kids internet usage. I first tried a free solution from Blue Coat Software called K9 Web Protection. It looked pretty good, but I couldn’t make it work at all. I installed it, rebooted the machine, and got nothing. I wasn’t able to connect to the internet at all, and every time I tried to run the administrative program, it crashed. During the uninstall procedure, it brought up a window and asked me why I was uninstalling, so I told them. To their credit, a Blue Coat support guy responded via email within a day or two and sent me a newer version to try. It had the same problem only this time when I uninstalled it and replied to the original email, I got no response. Strike one.
The next one I tried was Kidswatch. I installed the trial version and it seemed pretty extensive. It allows you to limit exactly what times you are allowed to log on to the machine, what times you are allowed to use the internet, what web sites are blocked, what types of web sites are blocked (i.e. social media, online shopping, etc.), all kinds of stuff like that. The list of options is actually pretty impressive. It can also send you daily or weekly email reports of internet usage – which web sites were visited, how long was spent on each of them, stuff like that. It can send you immediate emails if a site is blocked or certain keywords are found on web sites, chat rooms, or IM sessions. This sounds great, but I started getting false positive reports all over the place – unless Ryan is doing google searches for “Megan Fox boobs” while sitting right next to me. It reported that he went to facebook when he didn’t, it reported all kinds of other web sites he didn’t visit and searches he didn’t perform. It ended up being more trouble than it was worth.
I had been using the free trial of Kidswatch for a week or two, not sure yet whether I wanted to buy it or not. It’s not that expensive – $45 allows you to install the software on up to three computers. But then I got an email saying “we’ve noticed you’ve downloaded our software but haven’t bought it. If you use this code, we’ll give you a $10 discount”. I know this is standard practice in many industries, but it seemed backwards to me — if I had originally been thrilled with the software and had bought it right away, I wouldn’t get the discount? It’s the same with banks – the loyal long-time customers who never consider switching banks pay the highest mortgage rates, while the people who threaten to move to another bank pay less. That doesn’t seem fair to your best customers. Anyway, I didn’t end up buying it because of all the false positives. Strike two.
There’s another package called NetNanny which is supposed to be good, but I haven’t looked at it. It’s the most expensive though – $40 per PC. I was almost ready to install this one when I asked around on Twitter and someone said that they were “just using the free Microsoft one”. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but there is – Windows Live Family Safety.
Vista and Windows 7 have parental controls built in, so you can limit when you can log in to particular user accounts as well as the total amount of time they are logged in per day or week. This package adds more stuff, allowing you to set up multiple computers to have the same limits, modify these limits from anywhere, as well as adding web filtering (general categories as well as specific sites), game and program restrictions (eg. I have Skype and the webcam software blocked) and contact management if your kid uses Windows Live. It can monitor IM activity if you use MSN Messenger, but not other IM software. It would be nice if you could allow the child to log onto the computer at certain times but not use the internet, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. You also can’t combine the time restrictions with the web restrictions, so you can’t say “Allow minecraft.net on weekends but not Monday-Friday”.
So this is what we’ve been using for a few months, and it’s pretty good. If I run into problems with the Windows Live stuff or I need more functionality than it provides I may give NetNanny a try, but I’d want it on at least two computers, and I’m going to have to be damned sure that it’s going to do what I want before I spend $80 on it.