This week I visited the Microsoft office in Fort Lauderdale to talk about the Parental Controls on Windows Vista and their campaign of "Safer Summer Surfing" for children.
The Parental Controls in Vista were interesting in the sense that it's very detailed in how much you can learn about your child's computer habits and how they spend their time. You can set it up to not only block mature content Web sites, but parents can also find out exactly what programs their children are using, what sites they are visiting, what music they are listening to on Windows Media Player, what conversations they have on Windows Live Messenger and who they are e-mailing.
Parents can also set time limits for computer use. For example, if Johnny Jr. can't use the computer after 9 p.m., then the computer will tell him how much time he has left until it's 9 p.m. and it logs him off.
If Johnny Jr. is doing a school project on drugs, but all Web sites about drugs are blocked by parental controls, Johnny Jr. has to ask permission from the administrator to access a site. When the administrator logs in (a.k.a., mom or dad) they will get a notification that Johnny Jr. is asking permission to access a site.
This tool can be extremely useful, but it also has the possibilities for trouble if parents don't communicate with their children about the controls and the watchdog tools. Open communication with children is the key to online safety and the key to making parental controls work, and Microsoft also preaches this.
When I was growing up, Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator was not on TV. And MySpace wasn't around. But there were certainly creepy people in AOL chat rooms. A/S/L? I had no fear about talking to strangers in chat rooms when I was 12. I spent most of that time in areas for kids, but I went exploring. I wanted to know what strange room names were, like LGBT? Looking for love? Phishing? Oh my mom would have had a fit if she knew what I was reading. But luckily I had a sketchy person radar. When I got messages "From AOL" saying they needed my billing information, I was the one teaching my mom and dad that this was a scam. But all it would have taken was one creepy guy to pretend he was 12... actually, I might have talked to creepy guys pretending they were 12 and I would have never known.
My parents knew I was a smart kid, so they trusted me. But they didn't know how much was out there, and although I was a good kid, it would have been easy to get mature content without them knowing, or talk to a child predator in a chat room for teenagers.
With social networking as popular as it is today, it's so important for parents to talk with their children and have conversations about what they see that's strange (just like how I talked to my parents when I came across phishing scams). More than half of teenagers have profiles with their names, photos and hometowns posted. Consumer Reports estimates that more than 2 million children nationwide have inadvertently viewed pornographic spam. As kids explore the Internet, you can't help but accidentally run into this stuff. And it's easy for people to find user names. Six out of 10 online teens say they have gotten an e-mail or instant message from a perfect stranger, and 63 percent of those who have gotten such messages say they have responded to the strangers, according to Microsoft.
Kids feel invincible behind a computer screen. I know I did.
Parents should keep these tips in mind this summer as kids kill time surfing the Web:
- Open communication with children is key to online safety.
- Make sure your kids don't share personal information with anyone online.
- Don't tolerate online bullying (which means if there is abuse, report it to Terms of Service.)
- Keep your computer secure. (Anti-spyware, anti-virus, firewalls...)