Fast Forward: Screen Your Children Well [The Washington Post]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / The Washington Post
Internet Safety for Kids
RICKY, 13, WAS ON AN ONLINE SMUT HUNT. Fortunately, it was just an experiment for the adolescent from Gaithersburg, MD wasn’t the type to sneak around in search of trouble—online or otherwise. But, the honor student was willing to test the waters—supervised, of course.
His task: to find sordid material on the Internet. “X-rated stuff?” he asked, looking to his Uncle Mike for permission. Mike nodded. Seated in front of a supped-up Power Mac the pair began their search.
Admittedly, neither had a clue where to start their prowl, so they turned to a printed directory: Random House’s NetGuide. In the Contents section, under Lifestyles, Leisure and Travel, was a section labeled Sex.
On page 235, Ricky spotted a photo called “Woman in underwear”; the text said it could be found in the newsgroup alt.binaries.pictures.erotica. Ricky logged on and a few clicks later—scored. Looking more embarrassed than
curious, he clicked on “Lisa Fuentes with nude photos.”
Much to his relief, the only thing that flashed on his screen was the message: “Blocked by SurfWatch.”
It turns out that SurfWatch is a leading parental control software program, allows parents to prevent sexually explicit online material from showing up on their home computers—something unlikely to happen by mistake or chance, but quite possible with a curious child alone before a PC. SurfWatch Manager also allows parents to block content related to violence, drugs, alcohol and other areas.
It blocks access to chat areas and other dicey features. The task of screening falls to about a dozen SurfWatch staffers who surf the Net for inappropriate sites. They use pattern-matching technology which lots them screen automatically for certain words and phrases likely to denote erotic content-erotic, sex, XXX and so on.
According to company co-founder Jay Friedland, the crew has identified more than 3,000 X- and R-rated sites so far. “Everything from Playboyto a single Web page with sexually explicit content gets blocked,” Friedland says.
Unfortunately, some perfectly G-rated sites get caught in the blocker’s nets. In February, for instance, the software blocked access to a White House Web page that used the word “couples.” “We’d rather be safe than sorry,” Friedland retorts.
The real problem, though, is that the Internet is a moving target: With hundreds of new sites going on-line every month, it’s a constant baffle to stay current. So SurfWatch is working on deals to have its software distributed by various online providers.
The good news: Even as the Internet enters more homes, shielding kids from the nasty stuff may get easier.