Saturday, August 18, 2012

Should I Use Parental Control and Monitoring Software?

A while ago I wrote an article about Reconciling Parental Control Software with Internet Security Principles. My view on parental control and monitoring software hasn't change much since then and I still feel that monitoring software can pose a huge security risk if not used correctly. However it seems like more and more anti-virus vendors are integrating parental control tools into their Internet security suites and one tend to wonder why.
I was viewing a couple of questions on Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers the other day and I noticed quite a lot of teenagers asking the question on how to bypass blocking software in order to view porn. I even saw a question from a grandfather for advice on how change his password to prevent his grandson from using his computer for porn, while he is asleep at night. I will agree that this is no new trend, but porn usage among teenagers are an ever increasing problem and the only way to battle it, is to control the way your children and grandchildren are using your computer, their own computer or even the family computer.

Now before I discuss this topic any further, I would like to make it very clear that I'm not trying to tell parents how to raise their children, but I'm merely focussing on the role that computers are playing in our lives and the threats they pose to our children and how we should manage it as part of your parental duties. Parental control and monitoring software are useful tools to control and understand your child's online activities, but it is in no way a substitute for your responsibility as a parent to protect your children from being exposed to inappropriate content. Sure, we cannot lock our children up and never allow them to play outside, so they are going to be exposed to things we don't like, but we need know about those exposures and react to them as quickly as possible. Parental monitoring software is just one of those things that can make it easier for us to with these threats.

For starters I am not a big fan of installing parental monitoring software on a computer that's used to conduct online transactions. The monitoring software could record your credit card number for instance and should someone break into your computer and gain access to the recorded logs, then you will have a lot of trouble. The same principle applies to bank account information, passwords and pins. So if you have to use parental monitoring software, always use it on your child's own computer or on a family computer that's never used to conduct online transactions.

Another thing that's important is to tell your children that everything they do on the computer, is monitored. This creates an open relationship and if they have nothing to hide, then they should not have a problem being monitored. Any family computer should be in a room where there is a lot of traffic, yes sometimes you need your privacy on a computer when you send an e-mail or chat with someone in confidentiality, but as a parent you need to know who your teenager is chatting to, to whom are they sending e-mails and what kind of e-mails are they reading. Online predators often introduce themselves as teenagers and a parental monitoring tool can be the difference between your child meeting an online predator in real life or you putting an end to a relationship that could possibly harm your child. However there should be a good balance between allowing your child to socialize with known friends and family online and denying your child certain activities online when you are not around. Some parents could end up being totally paranoid and deny their children all forms of socialising on the web. But in the end, you remain responsible for who your child socialise with and you need to exercise the necessary control until your child is at an age where you can trust their judgement.

I'd like to get back to the point that you need to be open about the fact that you are monitoring your children's online behaviour. It is not a matter of distrust, but you would want to know when your child has been exposed to inappropriate content. Not every child will necessarily have the confidence to speak to you about something that they saw online, especially not when they think it is their fault and that they will be punished for accidentally stumbling across inappropriate content. But this can also be a sign of a larger underlying problem between a parent and a child, because your child should always feel free to talk to you when he/she is uncertain about something. But you may ask the question, can a child really stumble across inappropriate content by accident? Well there is no rule of thumb here, but the general perception would be that you can't stumble across porn if you weren't looking for it. This is not always true though and there are many exceptions to this perception.

Last month I investigated a spam e-mail that places the recipient under the impression that he/she can get free $100 meal coupon at McDonalds. The link in the e-mail has nothing to do with McDonalds, that's only to get your attention and to make you click on the link, but the actual link takes you to a random porn site. What child will pass on the chance of getting a $100 free meal coupon at McDonalds? Most children will click on the link, some out of curiosity and other out of gullibility. Do you really want your children to be exposed to the filth on the Internet without knowing about it? Wouldn't you prefer to speak to your child about what they saw and that the images they saw are wrong? Wouldn't you prefer to be the one to confront your teenage son with the information recorded by the parental monitoring software, instead of his friends telling him that browsing porn sites is acceptable? And this is where the openness comes into play. If your child did not know he/she was being monitored and you confront them with the data from the parental monitoring logs, you will most likely break their trust and end up alienating them rather than teaching them what is right and what is wrong.

I bet the following question comes to mind. If I tell my children that they are being monitored, won't they find another way to view porn, like at a friend's house, a cellphone or at the Internet café? First of all, you should be involved in the choice of your children's friends. Secondly, your child should not visit a friends house where there is no trustworthy adult supervision. Thirdly, a child's phone should only have voice services and no data services (yes I know a lot of people will disagree, but you will have absolutely no control over their online activities if they can browse whatever they want on their phone) and finally, an Internet café is not the place for a child to be on its own. People tend to view the Internet as some virtual world, totally separate from our everyday life. But it is as integrated into our lives as choosing the right food for your child to eat. If you exercise control over the physical things that could hurt your child, why not exercise control over the psychological things that can scar your child for life?

I realise a lot of people have their own opinions on parental control and monitoring software and how to raise a child, but porn is a great danger to our youth these days and it is not just the psychological damages that you should be concerned about, your should also worry about the financial dangers of browsing porn sites. What if your teenager manages to get a hold of your credit card and purchase a subscription to a porn site. You may argue you should not let your credit card lie around for anyone to use. True, but wouldn't you prefer to know when your child is sharing personal information like telephone numbers or your physical address with total strangers? What if your teenage boy uses the family computer to browse hardcore porn sites and infect it with some nasty adware. You don't want your eight year old daughter to be exposed to flashing ads of naked people caused by the junk your teenage son installed on your family computer, now would you? You may argue, I trust my children and they would never do stuff like that. You know your children the best and parental monitoring software is not going to raise your child or make the porn sites go away, but it can be helpful to address an ever increasing problem among our youth before it is too late.

Finally you may ask, what's the use of only monitoring my children's online activities, I also would like to control their access to inappropriate sites. For that you need parental control software. Some programs claim they can monitor and control, but they often tend to do the one better than the other. Certain parental monitoring programs have some form of control over the websites your child can visit, but it is often limited to general blocking features like limiting Internet access during specific times of day. Parental control software, on the other hand, may be good at blocking all kinds of porn sites, but they often suck at monitoring online activities. You, as a parent, need to decide what is the most important to you, simply monitoring your child or exercising control over the sites they visit and when they can use the Internet or specific programs installed on the computer. It all depends on your own unique situation. If you only want to know what your children is doing online, then a monitoring program is best suited for you. If you have a troublesome teenager who can't stay away from porn sites, then you may want to use a more aggressive approach and block access to these sites, by using a parental control program. Personally, I prefer a monitoring program over a control program, mainly because it is harder to bypass a monitoring program, without the parent's knowledge, than a control program. I accept the fact that both can be circumvented by a clever kid, but a monitoring program normally gives the parent a thorough audit trail of the child's online activities and it is easier to spot gaps in the logs of a monitoring program than it is to spot incidents where the control program did not do it's job. Another huge advantage of a monitoring program is that it is easier to tell if your children is responsible when they are online, but with a control program you never really know if your children will stay away from inappropriate sites when you remove the restrictions imposed by the parental control software.

In the end, the big question should not be whether we should use parental control and monitoring software, but ask yourself this question: Do you know what your child is doing online? Remember as a parent you need to be part of every aspect of your child's life and if you don't know what they are doing online, then it is about time that you started taking interest into their online activities.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, analysers of security software and raising awareness about spam and malicious software


Anonymous said...

I agree. I've been using Qustodio, a free yet complete parental control solution. Based on content, it blocks sites automatically in real time, tracks data, and also monitors the activities kids engage in on social media sites. I also keep a tab on the history report as well as the programs they've installed on the computers. Such software is as important as an antivirus, if not more.

C++ Genius said...

I won't really say that parental control software is more important than anti-virus, anti-virus is always your primary form of protection, but parental control software just adds another layer of protection if you have kids in the house.