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Internet Filters: Making Web Surfing Safer For Children

The internet, initially the domain of adult users, has rapidly become a place where people of all ages surf for fun and information. Children increasingly have easy access to the internet through school, the library, and home computers. The world of information is at a child's fingertips for school projects, homework, interest areas, hobbies, and play. Many children carve out their own space on the Web with homepages they construct.

The Web has responded to this with thousands of sites geared to children, from teenagers to the youngest preschool computer user. Many educational institutions, organizations, companies, and corporations have their own kidpages or kidpages linked with information geared for parents and other adults. Children can then experience what's happening in the world in a whole new dimension with links to real people and sites around the world. Some sites offer the opportunity to visit with children from other countries, exchanging news, ideas, pictures, and writings. Whole classrooms link up with classrooms around the world.

The danger for children on the World Wide Web comes with its openness. The web is completely unregulated. Anyone can post information on the Web and provide links to other pages. The danger for children lies in four areas:

  1. Children may link to a page with information, pictures or conversation that the parent deems too sexual, violent, racist, or offensive.
  2. In chat rooms the child may become a target of unwanted attention from adults, older teens, or other children.
  3. Children have become a target market on the net, with companies offering prizes, games, etc. for family information.
  4. Some commercial sites seemingly offering educational information or entertainment are really deceptive advertising, selling products to children.
How can a parent provide some cyber safety?
  • By using internet blocking or filtering software.
  • By providing education, talking to your child about safety on the World Wide Web.
  • Establishing family rules about internet use.
  • Making it a rule that the child not give out family information without the parent’s consent.

Internet filtering comes in two categories:
  • Software that the parent can load onto the computer at home.
  • Programs that can be activated through the internet provider, which will filter web sites for you.

The filtering mechanism on these programs work by:
  • Scanning sites and blocking those that contain specific words.
  • Blocking sites that are found to contain sexually explicit, violent or hateful material.
  • Limiting a child's search to a predefined set of sites or to sites that meet certain criteria.
Limits of internet filtering software (Consumer Reports, May, 1997):
  • Children who know a lot about computers can (sometimes easily) find ways to by-pass or disable filtering devices.
  • The filter may block a site that is acceptable to the parent.
  • None of the devices are totally effective in blocking all objectionable sites. The web is too big and changes too quickly.
  • A blocking program may not work with your online service provider. AOLTM, ProdigyTM, and CompuServeTM all offer the services of Cyber Patrol free to their online customers. Check with your service provider before using another product.
  • Some blocking devices may disable your computer if they are tampered with. Make sure you back-up your hard drive in case your child does not heed the warning.
  • Blockers such as Internet Explorer, rely on sites using the industry's voluntary ratings guide. Often, these are not effective because not all adult sites use or post the ratings.

To help with some of these difficulties, Consumer Reports urges that the filter providers:
  • Publish the criteria for blocking sites.
  • Give users access to the list of blocked sites.

The bottom line, however, is that no product will work 100% to keep your child from accessing sites that you deem inappropriate. To help keep children safe it is still best to monitor your child's internet use, and discuss with your child how to safely use the net.

Some tips for parents:

(These tips for safeguarding your child's internet use are from the U.S. Department of Education: Parents Guide to the Internet.)

Interacting with Others on the Internet

Just as we tell our children to be wary of strangers they meet, we need to tell them to be wary of strangers on the Internet. Most people behave reasonably and decently online, but some are rude, mean, or even criminal. Teach your children that they should:

  • Never give out personal information (including their name, home address, phone number, age, race, family income, school name or location, or friends' names) or use a credit card online without your permission.
  • Never share their password, even with friends.
  • Never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they meet online unless you approve of the meeting and go with them to a public place.
  • Never respond to messages that make them feel confused or uncomfortable. They should ignore the sender, end the communication, and tell you or another trusted adult right away.
  • Never use bad language or send mean messages online.
  • Also, make sure your children know that people they meet online are not always who they say they are and that online information is not necessarily private.

Limiting Children to Appropriate Content on the Internet

Even without trying, your children can come across materials on the Internet that are obscene, pornographic, violent, hate-filled, racist, or offensive in other ways. One type of material--child pornography--is illegal. You should report it to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children by calling 1-800-THE LOST (843-5678) or going to While other offensive material is not illegal, there are steps you can take to keep it away from your children and out of your home.

  • Make sure your children understand what you consider appropriate for them. What kinds of sites are they welcome to visit? What areas are off limits? How much time can they spend, and when? How much money, if any, can they spend?  Set out clear, reasonable rules and consequences for breaking them.
  • Make online exploration a family activity. Put the computer in the living room or family room. This arrangement involves everyone and helps you monitor what your children are doing.
  • Pay attention to games your older child might download or copy. Some are violent or contain sexual content.
  • Look into software or online services that filter out offensive materials and sites. Options include stand alone software that can be installed on your computer, and devices that label or filter content directly on the web. In addition, many Internet Service Providers and commercial online services offer site blocking, restrictions on incoming email, and children's accounts that access specific services. Often, these controls are available at no additional cost. Be aware, however, children are often smart enough to get around these restrictions. Nothing can replace your supervision and involvement.

Find out what the Internet use policy is at your local library

Ask about the Internet use policy at your child's school

Encouraging Information Literacy:
  • Show your children how to use and evaluate information they find on the Internet. Not all online information is reliable. Some individuals and organizations are very careful about the accuracy of the information they post, but others are not. Some even mislead on purpose. Remind your children not to copy online information and claim it's their own or copy software unless it is clearly labeled as free."
  • "Help children understand the nature of commercial information, advertising, and marketing, including who created it and why it exists. Encourage them to think about why something is provided and appears in a specific way. Steer your children to noncommercial sites and other places that don't sell products specifically to children. It is important to be aware of the potential risks involved in going online, but it is also important to keep them in perspective. Common sense and clear guidelines are the place to start."
  • Kids Online Project. Outgrowth of the Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children held in Washington D.C., December, 1997.
  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, (at Child safety on the information highway.
  • Consumer Reports. June,1997 and September,1997.

Last revised: 2/4/00

©2005 National Institute on Media and the Family.