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January 21, 2005

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Here's our lineup for this third week of January:

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Filtering, monitoring, etc., Part 2: Insights from experts

"Filters are of only limited use with chat and instant-messaging," said Josh Finer, publisher of For these communications apps so popular among tweens and teens, "monitoring software is better." Talking with Josh and Jerry Ropelato, publisher of, turned up some helpful insights - not just into what various types of online-safety software can do but also into parents' current interests. [See Part 1 for an introduction to their Web services.]

Josh's point about monitoring software suggests a shift in parents' concerns. A few years ago, when he started Software4Parents, Josh found that parents' No. 1 goal for buying filtering was to block online porn. Now it's just as much about contact as content - keeping strangers away from kids.

But every family's unique, he said in a recent phone interview. "Parents of a 13-year-old boy are more interested in filtering, while those of a 13-year-old girl are more interested in monitoring software," Josh said he's found. "For parents of younger kids, it's filtering." I asked him if parents give him or his customer service people that much detail, and he said definitely so. "They typically share their kids' ages. To be honest, I think they share too much information with me." It's clear there's a need to find the product that works best for each family's dynamics.

If filtering out "the bad stuff" is in your mix, the good news is, filters have gotten a lot better. "No product filters 100%, but I'd give the latest versions a 90%," said Josh, who's written online-safety software himself. [His accuracy rate is close to that of researchers at Australia's MacQuarie University, who said some filters are "getting about 87% success," Australian IT reports.]

Filter makers have also added some very useful beyond-filtering features. For example, "there's something called a privacy filter in NetNanny," Josh said. "You tell the software the child's name, address, etc., and if your child ever tries to communicate that information in an email or instant message, it appears as all x's at the other end." It's not talked about too much in advertising messages, he said, "but I think it's an excellent feature." The other filter he sells, CyberSitter, was PC Magazine's "Editor's Choice" in its latest annual review of this product category.

Another key feature, in Josh's view: time controls. They allow you to schedule when a child can have Web access, can chat or use other programs on the PC. "I'm hesitant to recommend anything without time and privacy controls," he said.

A key feature that's Jerry Ropelato looks for in a filtering product is whether it will identify file-sharing and other programs that kids tend to download onto their family's PCs - "will it give you a list of apps you may be concerned about?" is the question he asks.

But filters can't go beyond that basic ability to detect (IM or P2P) on a computer - they don't affect what's going on within those programs. "If a kid downloads an X-rated video [with file-sharing program like Kazaa or BitTorrent], there's nothing that'll detect [or block an in-coming video like that] in today's marketplace," Jerry said. "Most people don't even know porn exists on the P2P networks" (two US lawmakers brought this to public attention in the summer of 2001 - see my 8/3/01 lead feature and "File-sharing realities for families" ). What some filters can detect, using basic keyword technology, is what's in the text labels associated with porn images or videos, but some such files are intentionally mislabeled, so this is not a reliable safeguard.

Conflicts among various software products installed on a PC sometimes come up. Jerry pointed one out: "A lot of Net filters won't run with Norton anti-virus on their computers, and it's probably not the filters' fault." McAfee's anti-virus services probably work better with filtering.

What's important to remember, Jerry points out, is that "a lot of kids can find ways around almost any software protection anybody comes up with." For example, what wireless connecting "offers." "Kids can just go buy a $15 or $20 wireless card, install it, and use the next-door neighbors' router [if they have a wireless hub]." The oldest and most obvious work-around is simply leaving the house: no matter what precautions parents take at home, there's always a friend's house or libraries and other public places with fewer restrictions.

As for work-arounds for filtering software: "Years ago, kids could get around any [PC-based] filtering product. They really can't get around the top 3 now," Jerry said. On the other hand, - an anti-filtering site that "represents the interests of people under 18 in the debate over freedom of speech on the Internet" - tells people how to circumvent all "censorware" by getting a friend with a filter-free PC to download its software called "Circumventor" so they can "get around all Web-blocking software."

And so the debate about filtering's effectiveness goes on. Which is why online-safety experts urge parents to stay engaged in their kids' online experiences and keep working with them to develop the best filter there ever was: the one that's installed between their ears!

More info

Readers, what's working at your house? We'd love to hear about solutions you have - from family policies to tech tools. Email comments anytime to! (Here is Part 1 of this little series.)

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Web News Briefs

  1. Parents monitor online kids

    A whopping 95% of US parents surveyed said they monitor their children's online activities, "mainly out of concern for inappropriate content and predators," Newsday reports. Another surprising finding was that nearly 75% of parents "are present when their children go online." One dad told Newsday that he'd discovered "his high-speed connection allows his children to surf the Web using any browser, avoiding MSN and its parental controls" and that a Google search could turn up porn sites (he must not know about filtered searching - see the paragraph beginning "We're surprised teachers..." in my 4/30/04 issue). Among other survey findings:

    • "More than a third of parents examine the Web browser history to see which sites their children visited."
    • "A fifth use parental controls to limit sites children can visit, and many parents use a combination of monitoring techniques."
    • "Most computers that children use in the home are in common areas, such as the den, the report found" (just 13% said their children use computers in their own rooms).
    • Less than 25% of parents have imposed no time restrictions on kids' Net use. Restrictions are imposed to create balance in children's activities, for their health, and to give other family members time at the computer.
    • Among kids 6-12, nearly 75% go online for school work, "but an even greater proportion for fun. For teens, school-related Net use is No. 1, though "fun" is high on the list.
    • 75% of teens communicate via email and 63% via instant messaging.

    The findings are from the Board's latest Consumer Internet Barometer, a quarterly measure of who's doing what on the Internet which "covers 10,000 households." Here's their press release.

  2. Apple suing teenager

    Now he's 19 and a Harvard student, but Nicholas Ciarelli was 13 when he first started annoying Apple by building a Web site that published "insider news and rumors about Apple," the Washington Post reports. His Web site,, now generates millions of pageviews a month from Apple's "legendarily zealous fans," the Post adds. "After a series of letters warning the Web site to stop publishing proprietary information, Apple decided enough was enough." Apparently, it was Nicholas's prediction that Apple would come out with a computer for less than $500 (the Mac Mini) and other tip-offs that sparked Apple's lawsuit "accusing him of illegally misappropriating trade secrets." [Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the Mini at MacWorld last week - see my news brief.] How does Nicholas get this information? Just like any journalist, he says - by talking to "sources" and following up and confirming hunches or things he hears. Of course, some sources could be disgruntled Apple employees posting inside info at Anyway, the latest news is that Terry Gross, a San Francisco-based lawyer "specialising in freedom of speech and the Internet," is taking up Nicholas's defense free of charge. That's from the Associated Press Thursday.

  3. Schools & cyberbullying

    Harassment and bullying can take on "a new and ominous tone" when it happens online, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Especially when online "buddies" encourage a despondent young person, such as Ryan Halligan (who reportedly found solace in the anonymity of Net communications), to commit suicide in October 2003. His dad, "an IBM manager who built his own computers, [John] Halligan, of Essex Junction, Vt., thought he knew the risks of letting his son have a computer in his bedroom. His ground rules were clear: no talking to strangers, no sharing of passwords or personal information." Those are good rules, and Ryan's case was at a terrible extreme end of online harassment. But it had one point of intersection with so many young people's encounters with strangers online: very often they don't feel people whom they only know online (have never met in person) are strangers (see "Rethinking 'stranger danger'"). Much more common is an anecdote cited further down in the Inquirer piece: "Earlier this month at Titus Elementary School in Warrington, Bucks County, sixth graders listened intently to a story about Alex, a teen in the county whose classmates created a Web site titled simply 'Reasons to Hate Alex'." The school is now taking part in a new training program on how to deal with cyberbullying, "created for schools to meet a growing demand."

    In a recent story from Baton Rouge, La.-based WAFB TV, three high school students were arrested in a cyberbullying case. "A 15-year-old female student created a Web site called '' The Web site featured pictures of a 14-year-old male student. He responded with his own Web site, which investigators say included a list of students he called 'The Preps,' and poems so graphically violent, investigators say 'they crossed the line'." For more on this (and one Net-savvy school counselor's handling of IM-based harassment), see "The IM life of middle-schoolers."

  4. File-sharers convicted: A first

    This week saw the first convictions of file-sharers, Reuters reports. But the two middle-aged men from Texas and New York state were not your run-of-the-mill users of P2P services like Kazaa (more than 7,000 of whom have been sued by the recording industry to date). They "operated hubs in a file-sharing network that required members to share between one gigabyte and 100 gigabytes of material, the equivalent of 250,000 songs," according to Reuters. The US Justice Department said investigators downloaded material worth $25,000 from the two hubs. Both men pleaded guilty to felony copyright infringement, and they each face up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, with sentencing due in late April. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that file-sharing is not only here to stay but - even as they continue suing file-swappers - media corporations are working on ways to capitalize on the phenomenon. Also, legal downloading is soaring, with sales of pay-per-tune songs having "shot up more than tenfold in 2004," according to the BBC.

    BTW, parents of digital music fans, here are a few aids and heads-ups: a little primer from the Washington Post, explaining formats, retailers, and tune players; Wired magazine's inside look at wildly popular P2P service BitTorrent and its creator; the latest global figures on file-sharing at; BBC confirmation that new, harder-to-detect P2P services are popping up all the time; and the Associated Press on how movie file-swapping's a little different from the music P2P scene.

  5. Student tech support: Win-win

    As computer use grows the burden on school IT departments isn't - at least not in the Natchez-Adams School District in southwestern Mississippi. There, 25 high school students provide tech support for the entire district, the Natchez Democrat reports. Their work in classrooms and offices is the hands-on part of a two-year "computer system technology" course the high school provides, one of 10 such programs in the state. The first year is more about hardware, the second about software and the Internet. The benefits to schools, with mounting computer- and network-servicing costs, and students, with ambitions to start computer science and software engineering careers, are obvious. In fact, a 2003 National School Boards Foundation study found that 60% of US high schools have "students performing maintenance and troubleshooting on computers," according to the Raleigh, N.C.-based Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning. Here's a page about "Generation TECH," providing schools with guidelines for establishing a student tech support program. For a student perspective, here's an interview with the "Fab 5" student tech support team for the Sedgewick, Ks., school district in 2000-01, at 4Teachers. But these young techies are probably already aware of the one potential downside, as chronicled here in CNET: the unintended life-long side job of tech support for great-aunts, second cousins, and their "best friends."

  6. Monitoring teen bloggers

    The headline of this Detroit News article is not news to a lot of parents: "Teens spill deep secrets in Web logs." But these articles in local papers always offer insights. This one leads with an online journal entry from West Bloomfield High School sophomore Rachel Hines, "one of millions of American teenagers now turning to the Web, writing in online journals, also known as live journals, Web logs, or simply blogs." [Rachel told the paper that she thought about 60% of the people in her school have blogs.] Her blog entry's innocuous, but some go into great detail about teenagers' sex lives, family members, drug use, etc., "blurring the line between public and private life." It's like they're making themselves the stars of their peer group's own reality TV show. Or just "venting" - "getting their frustrations out," as Rachel put it. For some teenagers, that can mean victimization - online harassment or cyberbullying (see "Cyberbullying more harmful to kids" and my series, "The IM life of middle-schoolers"). On the other hand, "some experts laud online journals because they get students to write and as a place where they can try out personalities and test boundaries in a virtual world they often find safer than the physical one," the News reports. What do you think about online journals - does your child blog, do you check in on it every now and then? (Rachel's mom doesn't read her blog - "I decided it was her private thing," she told the News.) Do send in your comments and experiences!

  7. UK: Cell phone for kids cancelled

    UK-based mobile phone distributor Communic8 Ltd. took its phone for 4-to-8-year-olds, the "MYMO," off the market "over safety fears," The Register reported. In announcing the move, Communic8 cited a report from the UK's National Radiological Protection Board that reignited concerns about cell phone safety. "Although there's no proof to show that they pose a damage to people's health, experts at the UK government-appointed National Radiological Protection Board (NRPD) warned people to continue to take a 'precautionary' approach to their use of mobile phones," particularly use by children and other "potentially vulnerable sub-groups," according to an earlier article on this at The Register. Cell-phone figures for young Britons are pretty amazing: One-quarter of all elementary schoolers and 90% of 11-to-16-year-olds own mobile phones, according to the Times of London.

  8. PCs in family rooms?

    Microsoft and other companies want to turn the PC into an entertainment hub - let families watch TV or a DVD, display their trip's slide show, and listen to music all with a PC in the family room, the New York Times reports. Ok. That consolidation won't hurt on general principle, but our family really doesn't need to have it all happen on one big screen. What happens in our family room is, everybody sort of watching something on the big screen while one family member surfs the Web or instant-messages his friends (with a wirelessly connected laptop). We like having that little screen in the family room too so we have the IM-er with us and so we can generally keep tabs on kids' online activities. So we really don't mind having separate screens for TV/film and the Internet. But, the Times reports, there are other drawbacks to having the PC set up as a media center - for example, the picture quality of the video on the screen. But read the Times article for a good look at all the arguments, pro and con.

  9. Online safety in Shreveport, La.

    "Don't be intimidated by your lack of computer knowledge," is part of the sound advice police Lt. Bill Duncan tells parents in his Shreveport-area online-safety talks. He tells them to "talk to their kids" so they'll be more willing to tell them what's going on in their lives - including their online experiences," the Shreveport Times reports. One mother who attended a Duncan talk told the Times she went home and did just that, and - although her teenage daughter is "very computer savvy," some of the points made in the online-safety presentation was news to the girl, which surprised her mom. That's the funny thing about technology and human nature. We seem to assume that if someone else knows more than we do about tech, they somehow know all there is to know. This is especially not the case with the Internet. It's so vast, so many different media - from information (news, advice, advertising) to communications (email, IM, chat, discussion boards, VoIP telephony) to gaming (little games at PBS Kids and NickJr to massively multiplayer big-kid games with chat), and so on - that each person really only know the little corners of it s/he uses on a daily basis. Plus, as I learned from Dr. Herb Lin, who led a major mid-'02 study at the National Research Council on "Youth, Pornography, & the Internet," parents and kids use the Internet differently, so each has his and her own area of expertise, and it's risky to make assumptions about each other's online activities. [For more from Herb, see "Dial-up's just fine, thanks" and "Family Tech," 9/5/03.]

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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