Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Protecting Families Online

I just watched a news story from Australia regarding the Internet and its effect on teenagers - especially those who participate in online social networks, searching for others with similar interests. It has caused me to think: When those interests are self-deprecating, how do we as parents find these early-warning signs that are so easily seen by their peers online?

In the story, they discussed filters. They also discussed the ability for children to bypass them easily - most technically-savvy children can. The role of filters today is misunderstood by many - or, more appropriately stated, people today expect too much from Filters. Many years ago when I was working on other client-based software, we had the exact same discussion regarding our licensing mechanism - what was its purpose? We determined that its purpose was to keep the honest people honest, and to provide them with a means to tell when they needed to purchase more seats. As a side-effect, we would also try to make it more difficult for those who wanted to steal the software - but this was not the primary intent of our licensing mechanism.

Filters vendors today find themselves in a similar situation - but with much higher stakes. The filters today are intended to keep unwanted content off of our computers. However, if someone wants to get around the filter and bring that content on to their machine, it certainly can be done. There is a balance between being protecting the computer and being obtrusive and stopping the normal use of that computer. Move too far toward locking down the computer, and people will complain that they can't use it for the things they want (it blocks too much, it slows down my computer, I can't access the Internet at all, etc). Move too far toward unobtrusiveness, and you leave holes for people to exploit to get around the filter.

If people expect a filter to keep a determined individual, child or adult, from being able to find inappropriate content, then they will be very disappointed. As parents, we need to constantly understand what our children are doing online.

Recently, I am more convinced that there are two problems with the current thought process for filters:

1. Most filters are focused too much on keeping pornography off of computers, and simply "monitoring" children's activity, and are not focused enough on actually pro-actively trying to keep children safe from the many new dangers of the Internet. We need technology that will help parents to know what their children are doing online, who they are associating with online, and to provide them with the early warning signs of potential dangers. As an industry, we are failing miserably at this today.

2. Filters alone cannot protect our children. There are so many dangers and pitfalls, and so many strangers waiting to make contact with our children, that a filter cannot stop all of it. Filters keep unwanted content from the machine, but they don't stop our children from talking about suicide with their friends, or finding someone online to open up their soul to when they don't think they can talk to us. If I have a filter on my computer, but my children's friends don't, then nothing will stop them from accessing whatever they want from their friends computer, or from the local library for that matter.

The CP80 initiative is an alternative to filters. It certainly provides a more permanent solution, and one that cannot be bypassed as easily (it is still technology, and there are still holes - people stole porn and movie channels for years when cable was introduced). However, even this solution is focused on keeping pornography and other "content" out of the home - it doesn't address the issue of truly keeping our children safe, and making parents aware of early-warning signs of danger.

What we need is a way to understand what our children are doing online. What social networks are they a part of, what blogs to they actively participate in, with whom do they communicate? How can we get a handle on all of their activities online, and help them to know when they are venturing too far? In the real world, we can see when they are getting too close to the street, or when they are wandering toward a strangers house. In the virtual world, it is much more difficult to detect.

While there is a great need for filters, and there will continue to be, the real problem is in how we get a handle on the vast expanse of the Internet, and what our children are doing out there. The world is truly flat today, and keeping track of what our children are doing in that flat world is becoming more and more difficult.

It is not an issue solely of technology, but of parenting in a new world.

4 comments:

Steve Spencer said...

While I agree with you that technology is no replacement for our parenting responsibilities, I fear that so many non-techno savvy parents really are clueless as to what to do to help protect their kids. I know that filering technologies are not a "silver bullet", but they are definitely a key tool in the fight. It seems that way too many parents just don't know what to do, and even many who do know a bit about filtering may have a tough time paying for several desktop licenses of something, or figuring out how to get squid and Dansguardian running in homes more and more likely to have multiple computers. I would really love to see the state invest some of the dollars they have put toward projects like the Child Protection Registry, and help provide a good filter for families that can't afford one or don't know which on to trust. Again, I completely agree with you that we need to know what our kids are up to (bloggings, myspace, chat rooms, MMORPGs, etc) but I would love to see a little black box that could be purchased at Best Buy, plugged inline with a cable modem, and make parenting just a bit easier.

Ryan said...

I believe that the "black box" ideal that many parents wish for is a bad solution because it elicits a false sense of security and provides a fake notion of fulfilled responsibility. It also pits the parent against the child in a technology-savvy battle that makes the child feel less accountable for his/her actions, and it is a battle that the parents rarely win.

When I was young, my parents tried to control my access to the dial-up Internet by keeping the password from me. I grew tired of this, and so I easily stole the password via a key logger. At that point, I felt that I had triumphed over my parents and now had this newly won freedom to browse the Web at times when my parents were either in bed or gone. My parents knew nothing of this, and they felt comfortable that they were keeping me from danger. Fortunately, I had the self discipline to stay away from pornography.

If my parents had installed some sort of black box, then I would have made it my mission to bypass it. The black box would serve as a symbol of the enmity between me and my controlling parents.

A black box tells a child that he/she can't be trusted. There's no need to spend the effort to teach children about responsible Internet use if you can just force it on them. It makes parenting that much easier.

I think we need to come to grips with the fact that there are not going to be any quick fixes for protecting children from the dangers of the Internet. I completely agree that people expect too much from their filters. I believe that filters are very useful, but not when they are forced. I think that children should be taught to be responsible on the Internet. I'd even agree that their use of the Internet should be monitored closely, especially at earlier ages. However, compulsory Internet filtering leaves a terrible taste in my mouth.

Steve Spencer said...

Forgive me, but I must respectfully disagree. I have four children ranging from two to seventeen, and I throw my experiences out here knowing that I risk painting them out to be bad kids, which I do not believe they are.

Kids will push the limits. I don't think they are evil, or bad, but they will test your consistency and your watchfulness. I do not think a filter is a replacement to teaching a child that they should be responsible. But I do think it is a good tool to make it a bit harder for them to do bad things, or to protect them from accidental hits on bad sites.

To say that filters are not the answer because someone who attempts to can bypass them is like saying "never lock your house... it has windows anyway." The fact of the matter is that we lock our houses when we are away, even though it would be easy for someone to break a window. Why? because stepping in the door would be very easy. Breaking a window makes one decide to be more committed to the act they are going to perform. It becaomes a true violation rather than just a crime of convenience. I feel filters and the ability to bypass them is bascially this same issue. If someone is determined to steal they will break the window. But Is till ahve deadbolts on my doors, and folters on my computers.

Steve Spencer said...

Goodness... just noticed all of my typos... sorry all :)