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Fast Forward: Thinking Outside the Blocks [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / The Washington Post
May 14, 1999

WHILE TECHNOLOGY OFTEN GETS pegged as the bad guy, it can also just as quickly be praised as the solution. Consider how, in the wake of the Littleton, CO shooters’ use of the Web, parents are looking something, anything, to check what their kids up to online.

The answer, it would seem, is a filtering program to blocks kids from violent, sexually explicit or other objectionable sites. There are plenty to choose from, including NetNanny, CyberPatrol, SurfWatch, Edmark’s KidDesk Internet Safe, CyberCop or America Online’s built-in filtering system.

They all basically work the same way: If a kid tries to get into a site that is off limits, either according to program’s guidelines or custom filters added by parents—the program blocks access to it. Try to circumvent that, and you are logged off and have to reboot the computer until you enter a secret password (which parents have keyed in and, hopefully, then hidden).

There are certain add-ons: Cyber Snoop and CyberPatrol, for instance, log kids’ online wanderings, AOL allows parents to check on a kid’s e-mail and buddy lists (so long as the account is in the parents’ and parents know their kid’s password).

But this software solution isn’t always so tidy. The first problem is when parents sharing a computer with their kids are blocked out themselves. When I was installing the new version of SurfWatch, for example, my daughter managed the throw the program into full lockout mode. (It also took a few days before the online registration would work, but that’s another story entirely.)

I called customer service at SurfWatch’s number—only to be greeted by a message that tech support was only available during business hours on weekdays. It was Saturday. Logging on to the company’s Web site, the suggested alternative, wasn’t the best option, since I couldn’t get online.

I finally removed the dratted program and reinstalled it. (This is one advantage of the “server-based” filtering of AOL and a few Internet providers: Nothing to set up on your own PC.)

The other big problem with blocker software is how hit-and-miss it all is. While I was searching the Barbie Web site SurfWatch locked me out of a “Software for Girls” page. I unlocked the program, but the mystery remains unsolved as to what is on that page. (SurfWatch doesn’t release its database of blocked sites).

It made me wonder, though. If a blocked page on a Barbie Web site piqued my interest, wouldn’t a computer-savvy teenager go to great lengths to get to a forbidden porno page? Probably. The bad news is, some are likely to succeed. No software is tamperproof, and if a kid wants to circumvent a filtering program, he or she will probably find a way.

Feel helpless? I do. Some parents are so worried about their kids online that they have installed surveillance programs. But using these Big Brothers is like reading a child’s journal. My question: Is spying on our kids really the best way to protect them?


More Fast Forward / Washington Post Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.