Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bypassing Filters

I had the opportunity recently to speak to some teens in a sexual addiction recovery program, along with their parents and therapists. There were about 15 – 20 of these boys in the room, and each of them introduced themselves to me as we began the meeting. Because of the topic I was to present on (Cyber Safety), they were asked to share with me one thing about the Internet that has been a problem for them. While not surprising, their answer to this question was certainly eye-opening.

Every one of these boys informed me that they had viewed pornography on the Internet. However, they didn’t identify that as their “problem” with the Internet – almost every one of these teens told me that their problem with the Internet is that they know how to get around the technical blocks that are placed in their way to prevent access to pornography. Wow. I have long known that children know how to get around filters, and those who have either read my book or frequent this blog know that one of my main concerns with Cyber Safety is that parents will install a filter and think that their job of protecting their children is done. So, this revelation from these teens was not a surprise – but the fact that they consider their knowledge of how to bypass technology as their primary problem with the Internet certainly was a surprise.

In my opinion, every computer should have a filter installed to prevent inadvertent access to pornography – for both adults and children. However, parents need to understand that their job doesn’t end there. Staying diligent with regard to how your computer is used, and maintaining an open dialog with your children regarding their Internet usage is the best defense against inappropriate Internet use.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How old should you be to Facebook?

I ran across an interesting article on KSL today entitled "Is 12 too young for Social Media?" While I agree with the intent of the article, I think there is another angle to explore. The line that caught my attention is this "Stay says there are some dangers with allowing 12-year-olds to use sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter". Yes, there are - and those same dangers apply to people who are 13, 15, 18, 25 and so on.

Yes, I understand that as children mature, they improve in their ability to make good choices, and they evolve in their understanding of dangers both in the physical world and the digital one. But, there is nothing magical about ANY birthday - the person is still the same person they were the day before.

Think of it this way: We have a child who recently turned 18. My wife and I didn't all of a sudden start treating him like an adult, just because he had a birthday - rather, we give him the freedoms that he has proven he can handle as he grew up. When he reached 18, he had already shown he could handle certain freedoms. Whether or not the world thinks he is an adult has no bearing on the freedoms that we allow him - other than those afforded by law, of course (in other words, we wouldn't allow him to drive at 14, just because he showed the ability to handle that responsibility).

Similarly, we don't let our 13 year old watch any-and-every PG13 movie, just because some rating system tells me it is appropriate for 13-year-olds. We, as the parents, decide what is OK for our 13 year old to watch. There are some PG13 movies that my wife and I won't watch - and there are some that we allow our 11-year old to watch. It all depends on the content of the movie and the person's ability to handle that particular content or topic. We, as the parents, make the judgement call - not our community, our society, or Hollywood.

Similarly, I believe that there are some 13, 15, 18 and older people who shouldn't be on Facebook. It all comes down to the individuals understanding of the technology and the ramifications of not being digitally responsible. If you don't believe me, just look into the story of Cynthia Moreno, a college student (well over 13) who posted a rant about her hometown on her MySpace page. Not a good idea - and her family has suffered greatly now because of it.

Rather than talk about a specific age when we should allow our children to participate on a social network, we should look at how that child handles themselves, and what they know of the dangers of the web. Those who can be digitally responsible should be able to use technology - just as those of my children who can be responsible drivers are going to be able to borrow my keys. Those who cannot, will have to wait a while longer - no matter how old they are.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Time controls: Least-utilized Parental Control feature

In your home, how do you control the amount of time that your children spend on the Internet? I have been asking parents this question recently, and although this cannot be considered a scientific poll by any stretch of the imagination, the answers I have received lead me to believe that “time controls” is probably the most under-utilized technological solution available to parents today.

What are Time Controls?

Time controls allow parents to set some boundaries regarding the amount of time children can spend on the Internet, or even on the computer itself. Time controls can be configured in two ways:

1. Set the amount of time per day or per week that a child can use the Internet.
2. Set specific hours during the day (or night) that the Internet can be accessed.

Even though time controls are freely available via Internet filters and even some operating systems, much of the time parents don’t know they have this capability, and the feature is never configured and remains unused.

Why do we need Time Controls?

Many parents in my non-scientific poll replied that they themselves are the time control – they simply watch their children on the computer, and tell them when to turn it off. They do this for all other activities their children participate in - they say - why not treat computer access the same way?

Natural Bounds

Others tell me that they don’t control time on the computer - they allow their children to naturally tire of the activity itself. I call this the “natural bounds” approach. In years past, many children’s activities were controlled by natural bounds: for example, my parents didn’t need to tell me when to stop playing sports. The environment or the activity itself naturally limited our play—whether it was the setting of the sun, the park closing, enough of my friends going home that there were simply not enough of us left to enjoy a game, or, just being too tired to run around anymore. In the end, we would have to wrap up our activities and plan to meet again the next day. It was the natural order of things.

Unfortunately, this approach breaks down when it comes to technology. Digital activities do not have these natural boundaries. Online games generate the adrenaline rush that helps keep us awake; moreover, our bodies don’t get physically tired from typing on the keyboard and moving the mouse. Therefore, we can spend all night in a virtual world and not even notice the time flying by. When friends drop off, we can continue playing with the myriad of other people who remain online, or we can just play against the computer-generated characters by ourselves. Chatting online with friends can continue well into the night, long after the natural bounds of the physical world would have forced us to disband and return to our homes.

Nighttime Computer Access

Another reason to use time controls is to prevent access to the Internet during the middle of the night. Many children who are searching for inappropriate content will do so during the night, when their parents are sleeping and don’t know the computer is being used. In reality, there are very few valid reasons for children to be accessing the Internet in the middle of the night – so why not turn on time controls and ensure the Internet is not accessible during the nighttime hours? Although the Internet is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, there is nothing that says that our children must have access to the Internet at all times.

No arguments

Using time controls also takes care of the argument from the kids that “I just need a few more minutes to finish this level”, “I’m almost done- just a couple more minutes”. When time runs out, the Internet is no longer available from that computer – the kids can’t talk back to the time control software. They learn very quickly that they need to be aware of how much time they have left and they better save their place in the game, or finish their last email/chat, before their time runs out. I can tell you from personal experience that our children have become self-regulating since we instigated time controls in our home.

Where can I find more information about Time Controls?

Remember that no technology is foolproof, and kids today are smart – they can get around technological barriers placed in their path. No technology is an end-all solution - but time controls are still a very powerful parental tool which is often overlooked by many parents today.

Time controls are easy to use, and are freely available either as part of your operating system (if you have Windows Vista or Windows 7), or as part of a commercial Internet filter- even free filters have time controls.

If you are using Windows, look for time controls under Control Panel, Users and Settings and Parental Controls. If you are using a commercial Internet filter, look at your administrative settings for Time Controls.

I would love to hear how time controls has helped you in your home!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Education and Awareness - not fear

How do we keep our children safe while still allowing them to participate in their digital world?

I believe the answer to keeping our children safe lies in education and awareness.

Our children are the technology natives – we are technology immigrants. They know more about technology than we do – and they are less afraid to learn than we are. There is a real danger in this – our children don’t have the background to understand that there are real dangers in the world, and that there are people out there who want to do them harm. It is our job to protect them, and to help them learn to protect themselves.

I see this is as quite similar to handing them the keys to the car. We would never allow them to drive the car without first teaching them the rules of the road, helping them obtain a license and telling them what we expect when they get behind the wheel. The problem is that parents are less aware of technology and its dangers than the children are, and find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to teaching our children the "rules of the road" for technology.

The truth is, however, that we already have the parenting skills to handle this. Technology has not brought any new dangers or sins into the world – just new ways to access them. Keeping pornography away from our children has always been an issue, long before the Internet. Protecting them from child predators has been a concern of parents long before online chat rooms and online gaming was popular – just ask John Walsh. Technology just provides a new avenue for our children to wander more easily into these dangers – and when parents are not aware, it becomes even easier for our children to find themselves exactly where we did not want them to be.

Technology is not to be avoided – it blesses our lives and provides great miracles for us. Personally, I believe that if we shield our children from technology we do them a dis-service – they need to know how to make the best use of technology to thrive in the world today.

So, we have to find the balance between allowing them use of technology, and the enjoyment that comes along with playing online games, socializing with online friends, and making new ones – and responsibly using technology without becoming so enthralled with it that they lose their attraction to the “real world”, or get sucked into dangerous situations.

It is about parenting in this new, digital world. Communication with our children, understanding what they are doing – both online and in the physical world – is the best defense. And, being aware of what technological dangers exist and how we can prevent them is just as important. And that is what this blog, and my book “Cyber Safety: Maintaining Morality in a Digital World”, is all about.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cyber Safety: Teens, Technology and Testimony

Meridian, an LDS Magazine, has recently published an article that I wrote regarding raising Latter-Day Saint children in this digital world. I'd love to hear your reaction and comments to this article!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Media Convergence

Take a look at this video for a very interesting look at how our world is changing, and how we consume information today as opposed to how we did just a few years ago.

Very interesting.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cell phone tips

Kids sure love their cell phones. In a recent study, the cell phone ranked 2nd only to clothes in importance for teens today. The cell phone can do much more than traditional phones, however, and giving this technology to kids without guidelines or restrictions can invite problems. Here are a few suggestions to help parents who give their children cell phones:

1. Remember that with the associated data plan, a cell phone can browse the web just like a computer can. A recent study shows that 1 in 3 teen regularly browse the web on their phone. If your cell phones have this ability, then you need to be aware of what is being viewed. Remember that your filter doesn't block content on the phone. Also, restrict the cell phone from the bedroom at night just like you do for computers. One way to enforce this is to require that all phones be charged in a public room of the house each night. We have our children charge their phones in the kitchen every night, so they don't have their phones in the bedroom with them.

2. Sexting (sending inappropriate images of themselves to someone else via text messaging) is very popular today. Spot check your childrens phones every once in a while to see what pictures they have on their phone.

3. Create a "check in/out" system if your children are very young. They can check out a phone from you when they need one, and they check it back in when they are done. This way, you have the ability to get in touch with them when you need, and they can always call you - but they don't feel "ownership" for the phone, so they won't give out the number to their friends, and if they do the friends will be less likely to send inappropriate messages and pictures to that phone, since they will know that it belongs to YOU.

4. Cell phone comanies allow you to turn off certain features - like premium text messaging (i.e., the "services" that can cost you money), or web browsing. Call the cell company, and limit the abilities of your childrens phones - only let them have what they really NEED.

Just a few small things can go a long way toward keeping your children safe!

Monday, August 24, 2009

10 Cyber Safety tips

Although I am a big proponent of Internet filters, throwing more technology at our children and expecting it to solve the problem is not the best way to protect them from the digital dangers in the world today. There are many things you can do, today, to help make a safer environment for your children.

Here are 10 tips you can implement immediatly to help keep your children safe in todays digital world:

1. Educate yourself about your computer and how the Internet works. If parents know the dangers, they cann more easily help their children avoid them. Simply banning a child from certain websites or technologies may only motivate them to become curious, and to seek them out - whereas educating your child on how to keep safe will help them to understand the reasons that we want to limit their digital experiences, and will help them develop their own “internal filter” so they can know on their own when they are venturing too far.

2. Teach children to protect their identity while online. Help your children understand how to safely share photos of themselves on their social networking sites, using the privacy settings to help protect these images from strangers. Teach them not to give out their names, addresses, phone numbers, schools, or other personal information where strangers can find them. Teach children not to share any personal information online without parental knowledge and permission. Help them understand that many predators pose as children to gain access and information that may put them at risk.

3. Install a filtering program, and learn its features and how to use it. Don't simply "set it and forget it" - read the reports, use the features, and know how your computer is being used! Family safety software is becoming extremely advanced and an effective way to filter dangerous content. Additionally, this software usually comes with tools like time management, remote monitoring and reporting, and keystroke recognition. Good filtering programs allow you to view a history of which sites and chat rooms have been visited and when, as well as a record of incoming and outgoing e-mails and chat logs. Educate yourself about the latest filtering/family safety programs at sites such as www.internetfilterreview.com.

4. Know the dangers associated with applications and websites that your children use. Teach family members to never open e-mail from someone they don’t know, and to be wary of attachments to emails. Become familiar with the social networking sites they frequent, and be sure you know what people are doing on your children's favorite sites that could put them in harm's way.

5. Teach family members to tell parents if they encounter any form of inappropriate content online. This may include pornography, sexual solicitations, online bullying, etc. Teaching children to bring this to your attention will help reduce the fear or shame that accompanies accidental exposure. It also serves to open discussion about the dangers of pornography.

6. Manage your children's time on the Internet. Scheduling times when a child can be on the Internet and the amount they can be online ensures that you know when they are on the Internet and how long. By not allowing them to have free reign reduces their chances of being exposed to inappropriate content. Be aware of what your children’s school and public library policies are regarding Internet use and accessibility.

7. Set specific Internet guidelines for your children to live by and consistently enforce consequences if they are not followed. Giving your children specific guidelines to follow ensures they know where they stand when it comes to how they use the Internet as well as the consequences when they breach the rules. If a parent enforces consequences consistently, their children will be more likely to follow the rules.

8. Place computers in high-traffic areas of the home. With PCs in the open, children will be less inclined to view and access material that may not be acceptable. Kitchens, family rooms, and studies tend to be good options, because these rooms usually don’t have doors and they are typically less secluded than bedrooms. Position computer monitors so the screen faces out for public view. If you are having a tough time figuring out where to place the computer, look for where the carpet is the most warn in your home – that is a high-traffic area, and may be an ideal location for a computer.

9. Strive for open relationships with your children that would be conducive to open communication. Open communication and trust is key when dealing with online safety. By letting children know what is expected from them and that their safety is a top priority, they will feel that if something happens--whether they are approached by a cyber stranger or bully or receive an inappropriate email--they can approach a parent to resolve the issue without feeling they are in trouble.

10. Prepare yourself NOW for how you will react when your child comes to you to inform you of something innappriate that they saw or read online. Your reaction will determine how quickly they come to you the next time it happens - don't over react, and remember that statistics show it is only a matter of WHEN, not IF, they come across inappropriate content. It doesn't mean they went looking for it. If you are prepared for how you will handle this conversation, it will go much better, and they will come to you again the nex time it happens.

Remember that we are living in a new, digital world. Our children are looking to us to help them stay safe, both in the physical world and the digital one. Stay informed, and help them stay safe!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Twitter Warnings

Twitter is a great networking tool. It truly creates a global conversation, where anyone can provide and receive advice and input from others around the globe. It provides a mechanism for people to brand themselves or their company, and make the world just a bit smaller.

There are some dangers with Twitter, however. Here are three specific warnings that I would pass along to anyone entering the Twitter conversation:

- Shortened URLs. Each Tweet must be no longer than 140 characters. In order to provide more information, people either need to send multiple Tweets, or they need to send a link to something on the web (like this blog post). However, many web addresses are too long, and leave little or no space for the actual tweet. To solve this problem, Twitter users make use of URL-shortening sites. These sites act as a proxy for the “real” site, but with a much shorter name. The name itself has nothing to do with the actual content.

The danger here is that we have no indication of where we are being taken, other than the text of the tweet. So, one could receive a tweet that simply says “Check this out!” with a URL pointing to someplace on “bit.ly” or “tinyurl.com”. Clicking on the link could result in pornography, phishing schemes, malware or any other unseemly or dangerous site. As with email, be very wary of clicking on links in Tweets that are from people you don’t know well.

- Twitter Spammers. In my last blog post, I explained that Twitter is a much more open environment than Facebook. The intent is to “put yourself out there”, and to make it easy for those who may have similar interests to find you and follow your tweets. You post some tweets, and those who like what you are saying will find you and follow you. You don’t seek out followers – they naturally find you based on what you are discussing.

There are many, however, who turn this paradigm on its head. They follow anyone and everyone – not because they want to receive updates from these people, but because they want to make these people aware of their existence. Since Twitter includes images with each Tweet, many of these Twitter spammers will use pornographic images – thus spamming you with an image that you neither requested nor sought out.

Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about these types of Twitter users. The best we can do is to use the Twitter “block” feature, and block them from following us. Unfortunately, that means we need to: 1. Know about them, 2. Know what they represent, and 3. Decide we don’t want their influence on our Twitter page. and 4. Specifically "block" them from following us.

- Relationship of trust. Every con artist will first attempt to build a relationship of trust before scamming you. A common problem with all social networks is the relationship of trust that is inherent in these networks. If a scammer can leverage that existing relationship, it makes their job much easier.

Remember that at any time anyone can have their account compromised – it only takes someone discovering the username/password combination and they can start posting as if they were that individual. If any of your online friends ask for personal information, be wary of providing it online. Their account could have been compromised, and you may be handing your information over to a complete stranger.

These are just a few of the unique areas of concern for the open social networks such as Twitter. Don’t let these warnings prevent you from entering the global conversation, but when you do decide to join in, please do so with your eyes open to the dangers, and be vigilant in protecting your digital footprint. Be sure you are not associating with those that would do harm to your online reputation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not All Social Networks are Created Equal

The popularity of micro-blogging sites is bringing a new wave of changes to how the Internet is used to disperse information. People are communicating in 140 characters at a time – sharing how they are feeling, issues they are pondering, problems they are facing – and doing so succinctly in just a few words at a time.

Sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace started out by simply providing a place where one could post a few words to describe their mood, interests or current activities. But as people starting using these mediums, they changed the usage to create a “global conversation” where questions are posed, advice is offered, and brainstorming occurs.

With this new communication mechanism comes some new dangers that parents need to be aware of. Not all social-networking sites are created equal, and each site serves not only a different audience, but a different intent as well. For example, although often mentioned together, Facebook and Twitter serve almost completely opposite purposes. Facebook is intended to help you keep in touch, or get back in touch, with people you already know in the physical world. In order to read each others updates, you need to acknowledge that you know the other person. While nothing posted on the Internet is ever private, there is a certain (albeit extremely small) expectation of privacy – only those to whom you grant access can read your updates.

Twitter, on the other hand, is intended to make new friends and associates. Every ‘tweet’ sent to twitter is available for anyone else to read – whether you know them or not. Anyone can respond to your tweet, and can strike up a conversation with anyone else. You don’t have to know the other person in the physical world in order to interact. People search all tweets for certain words or phrases, and may begin “following” anyone who uses those terms.

The good news is that teens today understand this, and most of them are avoiding Twitter for that very reason. Many of them find Twitter “creepy”, and prefer to stick with Facebook, MySpace and the other “connect with people I already know” type sites.

However, as we know, the dangers of the Internet are not limited to children – adults can quickly find themselves involved in things they didn’t expect. Twitter is finding it necessary to actively search out twitter spammers as people figure out ways to leverage this open environment in a self-serving way.

In future blog posts we will explore some of the unique dangers that accompany participating in the “meet new people” type sites, such as Twitter.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Technology and Smoking Reduction among Teens

I just heard two stories on the radio that cause me to wonder whether technology can take credit for actually making kids healthier. If so, could it also help reduce teen pregnancy, teen vandalism, and other innapropriate activities? Interesting thought...

One recently-released study indicates that kids as young as 2 years old are spending more time online - and the number is growing. The other story indicated that smoking is down among young people (I couldn't find that link, but here is a similar story from a few months ago indicating that marijuana smoking is down by double-digits among teens).

In the report on the decline in pot smoking, they surmise that the decline is due to the fact that kids are not going out at night as much as they used to - and they guess that this is because kids are engaged in on-line activities. So, playing online games and participating in social networks may actually have played a part in reducing smoking among teens. Very cool.

I have blogged in the past about the lack of "natural bounds" when participating in digital activities - that is, kids spend more time online because their bodies don't get tired like they would if they were playing outside, or they don't recognize the time passing like they would if they were outside and the sun went down, etc. Now there is actually scientific evidence that participating in digital activies may actually have a positive "natural bounds" effect - allowing kids to participate in online activities instead of going out at night may keep them more healthy.

Of course, we still need to ensure they are using technology safely - there are plenty of things they can get involved in online that would be just as detrimental to their health as smoking. But the good news is that we have much more control over the technology in our home than we do once our kids leave the house to "hang out" with their friends. Of course, we don't want to swing the pendulum too far to the other side either - kids need peer interaction, and they need some freedom to associate with their friends in the real world.

The bottom line is that we, as parents, should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. No need to unplug the cord and keep our kids away from technology - just be sure we help them understand how to use technology responsibly - and it may just help us reduce some of the difficulties of the "old days" when kids would just hang around outside with their friends in the real world - and would quickly find ways to get into trouble.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Family Safety = more than just Internet and Cell Phones

I am very pleased to see the recent increase in awareness about Family Safety and the Internet. It certainly seems that parents are becoming more interested in the issues surrounding keeping their children safe while they make use of the Internet, cell phone and other new, digital technology that we find in our world today.

As we strive to keep our children safe in this digital world, however, we cannot forget about some of the other dangers that our children face from the media that we allow into our homes - specifically with regard to television and video games. If we are not vigilent regarding all of the media and entertainment that comes into our homes, our children could be exposed to a huge amount of violence and age-inappropriate sexual behavior through these mediums as well as through the Internet. Dr. Victor B. Cline once said: “The amount of violence a child sees at 7 predicts how violent he will be at 17, 27, and 37. … Children’s minds are like banks—whatever you put in, you get back 10 years later with interest.” He indicated that violent television teaches children, step-by-step, “how to commit violent acts, and it desensitizes them to the horror of such behavior and to the feelings of victims.” In Dr. Cline’s opinion, America is suffering from “an explosion of interpersonal violence like we have never seen before. … The violence is because of violence in our entertainment.” ("Therapist says children who view TV violence tend to become violent,” Deseret News, 24 Mar. 1989, p. 2B, as quoted by M. Russell Ballard). Note that he said this in 1989 - before the Columbine, Trolley Square, or Virginia Tech shootings.

As I have talked in different venues on this subject, it is clear that some parents are not convinced that aggressive behaviors can be learned from violence on television and in video games. Many of the television programs aimed at children are extremely violent, especially some of the cartoons, they argue. Many of us simply brush it off, rationalizing that this is just how it is, and every child is exposed to this level of violence. In a now-famous study referred to as the Bobo doll study, Dr. Albert Bandura found that simply viewing violent behavior can indeed lead children to model that behavior. He conducted his study in 1961 with a group of 24 children between 3 and 6 years of age. He studied each child individually, to ensure that he was observing the behavior of the individual, and not the mob mentality of a group. The intent of the study was to see if the behavior of an adult would affect the way that these children played with different toys. The center piece of this experiment was a Bobo doll-- an inflatable doll that stood about 5 feet tall.

The children were placed in a room with an adult who simply played with a tinker toy set for about 10 minutes, then they were brought into another room where an adult pounded on the Bobo doll with a mallet for about 10 minutes. They were then allowed to play with the toys by themselves. The study became very controversial, especially with the TV stations, because it showed that the children would, indeed, model the extremely aggressive behavior by beating on the Bobo doll with just about anything they could find. As it turned out, they not only physically, but verbally abuse this doll based on the modeled behavior they saw from their adult playmate. In Bandura’s own words, “They added creative embellishments. One girl actually transformed a doll into a weapon of assault.” In the video of this study, one can plainly see a tiny, well-dressed young girl pounding the doll, then searching the room for other things to pummel it with (@ about 3:45 in the clip). Even though the adult model in the study did not play with the toy gun, Bandura noted that “exposure to aggressive modeling increased attraction to guns, even though it was never modeled.” These young children made the connection between violent behavior and guns on their own.

Children model the behavior they see. How much violence and sexual activity are they exposed to on the television and in video games today? It is challenging to find a show on primetime television that doesn’t have some sort of violence or sexual overtones of some sort – and it has become steadily more so since this study. Remember that Dr. Bandura’s study was done in 1961, when it was taboo to show a married couple sharing a bed on television (recall the Dick Van Dyke Show where the bedroom had twin beds) or to show any significant violence (think of Psycho, where you never actually see the knife touch the victims body in the famous shower scene, which recieved an "R" rating back then). Today you cannot get through an episode of most prime time sitcoms without sexual innuendos or overt references, and you cannot watch many dramas without extreme violence. As these shows become available on the Internet where the content is no longer regulated by the FCC, it will become an even greater danger to our children. We need to be very careful about what we allow our children to watch, especially in their formative years.

Being a parent in this digital world is increasingly difficult. As we strive to ensure that our children are safe while they make use of the Internet and their cell phones, let's also ensure that they are playing age-appropriate games and watching age-appropriate television shows.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Understanding Query Strings

Have you ever wondered whether your child really came across that innappropriate image accidentally, or whether they searched it out? There is a way to find out exactly what they were searching for - by understanding a geeky term called a "query string".

Understanding query strings can help you determine how your computer is being used and what people are actively searching for. By understanding the query string, you can determine whether someone inadvertently came across some illicit content while performing an innocent search (which does happen, and is why you should always employ "safe search"), or if they were intentionally trying to locate that content.

While some web sites make an attempt to render this data unreadable to the human eye by encrypting the data into a large number or set of meaningless characters, most just use standard text formatting which permits easy interpretation. When you understand how to read this, you can understand exactly what someone has been doing on your computer; these query strings act like a trail of breadcrumbs.

A typical query string looks like this (go ahead - click on it - it is a live link to a search):


By ignoring the extraneous data encoded in this query string, one can see that someone used this computer to search for George Washington data on Google. The following version of this URL highlights the sections that provide this information.


The “www” tells us that they performed a text search (rather than an image or video search). In the query string, we see the words “George” and “Washington”, indicating what they searched for. The rest of the characters on this query string are only meaningful to the search engine and can be ignored for our purposes.

In this next example, we see that the search was slightly modified, allowing us to search for images of George Washington, rather than textual references to George Washington. Note that the "www" is replaced with "images" (this is how Google and Yahoo do it - you will notice a slightly different, yet still very readable format for ask.com and bing.com below):


Here are a couple of URLs showing the same searches on different search engines. See if you can pick out the relevant data to understand what search engine was used and what was being searched—that is, text or images, and what topic:







Understanding how to interpret a query string gives you a powerful tool to help you determine if someone “just happened” to stumble across some inappropriate data, or if they were actively searching for it. This data is kept in your browser history, and it is also tracked and recorded by many of the filters available today.

Become familair with query strings, and keep a watch over what is being actively searched for on your computer. When innappropriate content is found on your computer, review the browser history and/or filter logs to see exactly what was being actively searched for when the content appeared. The best way to keep your family safe on the Internet is to keep yourself informed about the Internet!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Filters - Dynamic vs. URL List

I find this article to be quite ironic. To understand the irony, let me back up just a bit and explain the back story. A few years ago the Australian government decided that they wanted to step up their efforts to protect families in their country from the barrage of pornography that invades our homes via the Internet. Toward this end, they set aside some government money to purchase an Internet Content filter for any family in their country that wanted one. It was actually a great idea.

However, as is always the case, the devil was in the details, and success of this type of program is entirely in the implementation. At the time I was working as the Chief Technology Officer of ContentWatch, makers of the well-known NetNanny filter. We had just recently purchased the NetNanny brand and had changed the underlying technology from a purely list-based filter (i.e., blacklist of URLs, or web addresses) to a dynamic content analysis engine (i.e., the technology "reads" the web page and makes a determination based on linguistic algorithm whether to block or not). We were working hard on educating the industry to the fact that a list-based filter would not be able to keep up with the new URLs that would appear on the Internet in the near future. Of course, I am a bit biased, but I believe that we were ahead of the curve.

When we submitted NetNanny to the government entity that was selecting the handful of Internet filters that would be available through this program, we were found to block 97% of the URLs that the Australian government had found over the years to be pornographic. As we looked into the 3% that we did not block, we found that many of them were websites that were once pornographic, but no longer hosted illicit content - the content had changed, and our algorithm recognized that, and did not block the page. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the difference between a dynamic content filter and a list-based filter, in an effort to help them understand that a dynamic analysis of the content on-the-fly was better than a URL list. However, the rules had been set, and to be selected a filter had to block 100%, regardless of the content.

Now for the irony of the above story: NetNanny would have picked up the wikipedia change that is mentioned in the article, and would have blocked the page - because it looks at the content, not at the website address.

It seems that now, two years later, they are coming to the realization that a list-based approach is not the best way to filter the Internet, and they are now informing parents that a "watchful eye is better than filters". This statement is not entirely true - I would say that a watchful eye is just as imporant as a filter - and that a dynamic analysis filter is better than a list-based filter. Neither is perfect, and both have their weaknesses (the pros and cons of both are outlined in my forthcoming book entitled "Cyber Safety: Maintaining Morality in a Digital World").

It is certainly true that a filter will not block everything, and even that a dynamic filter will block some pages that it shouldn't. Nothing takes the place of a parents' watchful eye, but we need to be very careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater - filters have their place, and provide a needed initial blockaid to the filth available on the Internet - but parents also need to know that a filter is not a "set it and forget it" type of technology.

The bottom line: Every home with children should have a filter on thier Internet connection, but having a filter installed doesn't take the responsibility away from parents to stay involved in what their children are doing online.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cyberbullying case prompts new laws

Megan Meier may not be "patient zero" of a cyberbullying epidemic, but the strange twist associated with her case (i.e., that an adult was responsible for the bullying) has certainly caused her name to become synonomous with the plight of the cyberbully victims. Now, in another sad twist to this story, the woman behind the fake MySpace persona that tormented Megan may get off scott free, according to this article. This is simply more evidence that our laws have yet to catch up with the technological advances in cyber space.

When it comes to online behavior and the dangers associated with our children, cyberbullying is quickly becoming more of a concern to parents than online predators. If there is anything positive that has come from Megan's story, it is that it helped to bring cyberbullying to the forefront. Many states have enacted new laws to deal with cyberbullies, but there is still more work to be done.

As always, the more involved parents can be in their child's online activities, the faster they will be able to react to the clues of cyberbullying, and the easier it will be to prevent a tragedy such as Megan's. Know what your children are doing online, and who they are talking to - and what others are saying to and about your children. Watch for cases where your children may be cyberbullying others as well - young kids can be extremely hurtful in person, and the anonymity of the web only magnifies their bravado, causing them to say things online that they would never dare to say in person.

Cyberbullying is a real problem - with a real solution. While our lawmakers continue to strive to enact laws to protect victims of cyberbullying, may we as parents continue to get more involved in our children's online lives, and help them understand the line between harmless banter and hurtfull comments with real-life consequences.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Game Consoles = Unfiltered Internet

A game console is the kind of video game box that you connect to your TV, and either buy or rent DVDs to play on them. The most common examples are xBox from Microsoft, PlayStation from Sony, and Wii from Nintendo. Many people don't realize that most of these game consoles today have the ability to connect to the Internet, and could be a source of unfiltered Internet access within your home.

The primary reason that these game consoles have Internet access is to allow you to connect to someone outside of your home and play a game in real-time with them. While this has its own set of dangers (where do you think the predators are going to hang out, if they want to meet your children?), that is a subject for a future blog post. The danger I want to discuss today is the little-known fact (among parents, that is) that many of these consoles also have a built-in web browser which will use that same Internet connection to simply browse the web.

Yup- that's right - if your console is connected to the web, it is entirely possibly, even probable, that it is being used to browse the Internet, unfiltered by the PC-based filter you may have installed on the computers in your home. This doesn't mean that it is being used to see content that the filter would prohibit - but the possibility certainly exists. And, if you are using a PC-based filter, the activity from the game console would NOT show up in your usage reports either - it is a completely separate device that does not report its activity to your filter.

The good news is that most of these consoles have parental controls built in. Although you cannot install your own filter, you can set the console to allow the level of access you desire in your home.

If you have a game console in your home, check to see if it is connected to the Internet. Many of these consoles have the ability to disable the web browser while still allowing connections to others in the games, so don't worry that you are going to limit the "live" experience of interactive gaming, if that is what you purchased the console for. Of course, you can also close down the Internet connection completely from these boxes, and leave the gaming to those within the walls of your home, if you so desire.

Finally, remember that the parental controls on these boxes allow you to set the level of access that is appropriate for your home - use them! Set the parental controls to only allow the ESRB ratings that are appropriate for your family (see the ratings here). And, communicate with your children - know what games they are playing, with whom, and when.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

FCC and the "Fleeting Expletive" rule

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, that the FCC could indeed fine networks for a "fleeting expletive" aired prior to 10 pm over the public airwaves. In the decision, they left open the possibility of re-hearing the case from the perspective of whether first ammendment rights are involved or not.

Given the fact that Obama is set to replace 3 of the 5 member FCC board, and that the "fleeting expletive" rule is a Bush administration policy, it is clear that this case is far from over.

Regardless, I am left to wonder how much this really matters in today's world anyway. Make no mistake about it - I am very pleased with the courts ruling yesterday, and fully support the fleeting expletive rule - but given that the FCC has no control over the Internet and cable television, it certainly reduces the impact of such a decision.

Unfortunately, our children see "fleeting expletives" all the time when they are playing online games with people they don't know. And, most of the time, the parents don't even know because they can't hear it from the next room - instead, it is piped into the headphones or typed on the screen. And the FCC has no control over it. Neither does anyone else.

In his written opinion on this case, Justice Scalia wrote "There are some propositions for which scant empirical evidence can be marshalled, and the hamful effect of broadcast profanity on children is one of them". Unfortunately, the harmful effect is not diminished when the broadcast mechanism is the Internet rather than TV or radio. Michael Coops, who is acting Chairman of the FCC until the new leadership is confirmed, tried to "reassure parents that their children can still be protected from indecent material on the nation's airwaves". Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the place where they spend most of their time - namely, in online and Internet-enabled console games.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Social Networking Reunites Family

I wanted to share this story today, because I worry that I spend so much time warning of the dangers of cyber space that sometimes I forget to share the positive aspects of technology. This story reported by KSL news is a great reminder that the Internet is a great tool for helping strengthen families and bring happiness to many people's lives. The fact that a mother who gave her child up for adoption can then find him 30 years later on a social networking site is a testimony of the great blessing that technology can be in our lives.

I am so glad to be living in a time when the world is getting smaller, and technology can be used for so much good and to bless the lives of so many people. Have a great Easter weekend!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Technology won't solve the problem

I was so glad to come across this article about a study from the University of New Hampshire. It is entitled "Technology alone can't protect minors from online sex predators". Amen. The number one problem with technology solutions is the false sense of security that parents have when that technology is deployed. The problem of online predators and other cyber dangers is not going to be solved by simply making use of more technology - it requires that we interact with our children, teach them of the dangers in the world, and help them understand how to recognize the warning signs, and inform them of what to do when the see those signs.

It would be easy to mis-interpret this report, however, to indicate that there is not a problem. UNH has released other reports in recent years that indicate that online predators are not as big of a problem as the media makes it out to be, like this study indicating that it is more often the case that teenagers get involved over the Internet fully aware of what they are doing - as opposed to being lured into a meeting unwittingly by a predator. There certainly may be some validity to that notion - but that doesn't change the fact that there are predators out there, and they do prey on our children.

The bottom line from both of these reports is spot-on, in my opinion: technology won't solve this problem. Whether the problem is predators, or whether it is youth knowingly getting involved online with some one who may do them harm - the answer is not more technology. This problem will only be solved when we teach our children how to deal with these issues, and what to do about them - whether they run into these dangers in the real world or the virtual one. Technology has its place, and should be employed to its fullest - but we cannot end there. Technology cannot be a replacement for communication between parents and children.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sexting leads to teen's death

If you haven't yet heard it, there is a new word in the English language: "sexting". It is defined as the act of sending sexually explicit photos electronically, primarily using text messaging on cell phones. These photos are usually of one self, and are normally sent to a girlfriend or boyfriend. No longer do people need to go searching for pornography on the Internet - our kids are creating it themselves, and sending it to each other on their phones. And, Internet filters and logging tools that we set up on our home computers will not catch this - it is accomplished over the phone network, not the Internet.

Of course, what these kids are not thinking about are the unintended consequences. All too often, these images will be forwarded and will spread like wildfire among many of the individual's friends and classmates. Just in the past few months there have been several news stories about this on all of the major news stations, including ABC News and CBS News. And then there is the story of Jessica Logan that aired on NBC's the Today Show earlier this month. Jessica sent a nude picture of herself to her boyfriend - when they broke up, he sent it to hundred of other students in their high school. She was harrassed, started skipping school, and simply couldn't face her peers. Finally, she walked into her bedroom and hung herself in her closet. Heart breaking.

Apart from the extreme emotional toll that sexting can have on a teenager, there is also the very real possibility that they are breaking the law - if the individual in the picture is under age, the image is considered child pornography, which has very strict laws attached to it. Distribution of one of these images to an under-aged person is also illegal. Not only are these kids causing themselves potential harm by allowing innappropriate images of themselves to exist "out there" forever, but they are also putting themselves in a very real danger of having a criminal record at a very young age, and possibly finding themselves on the sexual predators list forever.

Not very smart. But then again, teens are not known for thinking about the future. As parents, we need to know how our children are using the technology that we put in their hands - and help them understand the potential dangers and long-term effects of a split-second decision.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cybersafety Constituency - a non-denominational initiative

I am really bothered by this article by TheRegister today. It makes the incorrect assumption that because the new Cybersafety constituency was proposed by a mormon, and someone who supports CP80, then the constituency must be a Mormon initiative to kill free speech on the Internet. Rubbish. Complete conjecture, and not even close to reality. The Cyber safety constituency, CP80 and the LDS Church are three separate entities - any attempt to link them are nothing more than an attempt to scare people into voicing opposition to an initiative that would help many people and create a safer Internet environment.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the comments posted today, many people are taking this article at face value and are now voicing opposition to the new constituency because they don't agree with the CP80 approach, when the petition clearly indicates that the new constituency has nothing to do with CP80 at all, but rather would simply be a non-denominational organization to help make the Internet safer for our families.

If you support this initiative, based on what is written in the official petition, then PLEASE send your email of support to: cyber-safety-petition@icann.org.

And, if you happen to not be a Mormon, please let them know that - we need to show some cross-denominational support for this initiative!

Friday, March 6, 2009

30 days to make a difference!

Have you ever wondered what YOU can do to help make the Internet safer for our families? You now have that opportunity - we have 30 days to speak up in support of a vote to implement a new Internet governance organization focused on making the Internet more safe for our families. Please take advantage of this chance to have your voice heard!

For those who are not familiar with ICANN ("Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers"), it is essentially the governing body for Internet and is the entity that is responsible for overseeing the direction of this global technology. You can read more about them here.

ICANN has certain consituencies that have voting rights and that help determine the general direction of the policies that govern the Internet (as far as such world-wide technology can be governed). Many of you may be familiar with the attempt to put in place a .xxx domain that would house the adult content for the Internet - it was ICANN that had to determine whether to implement this or not (ultimately, they decided not to, which is why we don't have a .xxx domain today).

There is currently a proposal in front of ICANN for a new consituency to be created, called the Cyber Safety Constituency. You can read about this on ICANN's website by clicking here. There is a link to the introduction letter explaining this new constituency, as well as the petition itself. You can read these two documents to get a better understanding of what this new constituency will be responsible for.

Before this new constituency is approved, there is a 30-day public comment period. This is where you come in - if you are concerned about the safety of your children online, and worried about the content that they can currently access, and want to do something about the online predators that are stalking our children - make you voice heard in support of this constituency by sending an email to cyber-safety-petition@icann.org and tell them you support the "Cyber Safety Constituency". All public comments will be posted here, so you can check back to see your comments and read the comments of others on this topic.

Please do not miss this opportunity to make your voice heard! Be part of the solution, and help get this new consituency created. I did - please join me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Utah leads the nation in online porn

This Salt Lake Tribune article is actually quite disturbing. It is a story about a recent Harvard Business School professor's study that indicates that Utah is #1 in the nation when it comes to the purchase of online pornography. Add to this the fact that Salt Lake City has shown up toward the top of the list for Google searches for extremely graphic sexual content for several years, and it shows a very disturbing trend.

The good news here (if there is any) is that this study is only looking at online pornography. There are no indications of whether this trend holds for pornography consumption in general, or if it simply means that in Utah the consumption method of choice is online rather than other means. So, it could be that this study indicates that we as a state are more technology-friendly than any other state in the nation, and we simply prefer to do all of our purchases online. Maybe we would be #1 in online book purchases, and online clothes purchases as well. OK - I admit it - am really stretching here.

So, why is it that Utah ranks numero uno in this distinctive category? Utah is a very conservative state, which would lead some to argue that we, as conservatives, are all just a bunch of hypocrites, and that this is now proof that those of us fighting the pornography battle are really closet consumers. I would be wary of such interpretations of this data. The article talks about the trends in areas with young population (OK, so Utah certainly tops this list), as well as college education and higher income. Utah would rank fairly high in all of these areas. It is also a fact that many parts of Utah, including our capitol city of Salt Lake, are becoming more liberal - based on recent voting history and trends. So, I don't think we can link this strictly to conservative "hypocrites".

The thing that really scares me is the following quote from the author of the study: "Even when I control for income, age, education, and marital status, Utah residents still consume disproportionately more than people from other states". I have no answer for why this is the case, but it makes me extremely concerned - especially for the youth of this state. More needs to be done to study this trend, and find out why Utah residents are disproportionately interested in purchasing this material online.

Very disturbing indeed.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Utah Child Protection Registry

If you live in Utah, and have children, you need to visit this site. You simply enter your email adresses, and anyone who sends adult-oriented spam is required to remove your email adress from their list. Those that fail to do so will face felony charges and "substantial civil and criminal fines".

For those who don't live in Utah, check with your state governement - if they don't have a similar registry, then contact your legislators and ask them to create one! It may not end the onslaught of adult-oriented spam, but it certainly will have a positive impact.

Thank you State of Utah! I, for one, sincerely appreciate this initiative.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Cell phone porn - accident?

This is a really disturbing story. The very short synopsis is this: a Utah man recently took a pornographic picture of himself with his cell phone and attempted to send it to his girlfriend. He allegedly mistyped the number, however, and ended up sending the image to a teenage girl.

Now, one can argue the merits here - for instance, why was he typing in his girlfriends phone number - wouldn't she be in his address book already? However, that is not the point of this blog post. There have been several incidents in recent months where teens are sharing innappropriate images via their cell phones - I even blogged about that problem on this page last year. In those cases, the kids themselves were inappropriatly using the technology they had been entrusted with. This is different, however - distribution of pornographic images to a minor who in no way requested or showed any interest in the image in the first place.

At issue in the news story is whether this should be considered a crime, or whether it should be treated a an "honest mistake". Reading through the comments to that story show very clearly how this is not a cut-and-dried situation for many people. For me, however, it seems pretty black and white: whether it was a mistake or not, the individual distributed pornography to a minor, and should be punished for it. If you want to distribute that sort of content, be more careful about how you do it.

There are many corollaries in our legal system already: you cannot distribute alchohol to a minor, you cannot sell them cigarettes, and you cannot sell them pornographic magazines. Whether you do it intentionally, or just "forget" to check their ID, it doesn't matter - you are still guilty of a crime.

Similarly, if one hits someone with their car and kills the individual, there are consequences. Intent determines whether that person is charged with murder or manslaughter, but either way there are consequences.

In the case of the cell phone porn, if intent cannot be proven, there should still be some legal recourse, and the individual should have some sort of punishment.

For me, there are two lessons to be learned here:

1. For those who want to use their cell phone to share innappropriate photos with others - take extra care to ensure you are only sending it to your intended recipient. If you don't you will be punished via the law (I hope).

2. For parents who give their minor children cell phones (I am one of those, by the way), don't assume that because your children won't put themselves in a situation to recieve innapropriate images, that it won't happen. Stay very close to their usage of technology, and maintain an open dialog with them so they will tell you when this happens.

Whether it is on the cell phone, Internet, television or any other technology - our children will see things that we wish they wouldn't. As parents, we need to ensure that they will tell us when they do, so we can limit the undesirable affects of exposure to this content, and help them avoid it in the future.

The mom in the above story summed it up when she said: "This type of stuff didn't happen when I was a kid." You are right. Our children are growing up in a very different world than we did. It requires different parenting than we recieved.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Adult Industry Bailout? You've got to be kidding...

Fox Business reported this week that the Adult Entertainment industry (which is really just a politically correct way to say the Porn industry) wants to ask congress for some bailout money. This is obviously nothing more than a marketing stunt, and is not a serious request in any way. As was reported by Fox News 5 in Las Vegas the next day, the Adult Entertainment industry is actually booming, and doesn't appear to be affected by the slowing economy at all. They report that "The porn industry generated $12 billion in 2007, and it is not showing any real signs of slowing down."

Of greatest concern to me, however, are the following comments from the two articles:

"our Internet sales are up"

"...video sales have been falling by 15 percent a year since 2005, but the producers and filmmakers said that market segment is being replaced by Video On Demand and online streaming."

"The press release noted that DVD sales and rentals for the adult industry have decreased by 22% in the past year, partially because people are turning more and more to the Internet for adult content."

The bottom line is this: the Internet is indeed fueling the growth of the porn industry. Much of the content is free, with the express purpose of getting people to pay to be able to view more of the content - much like drug dealers who give drugs away for free in the hopes of getting a new paying customer.

And remember - anything that is available to adults is also available to our children - the Internet has extremely poor age-identification mechanisms.

If you are a parent whose children are online, do not let your guard down. The porn industry is growing, and our children are smack in the middle of that growth curve.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How Many Social Network pages do we need?

I have had a LinkedIn profile for many years now, and I consider this to be my preferred method of "social networking". It was through LinkedIn that I ended up in my current job, and it has provided me with several professional opportunities over the years. I keep it updated, and have used it to reconnect with people I otherwise might have lost touch with.

I also created a Naymz page at the request of a friend, but I don't use it much - except when I recieve notifications that someone has visited my profile (which has happend surprisingly often). It is kind of fun to see how people come across my name - Naymz has a feature where they will show the google search that brought people to my page. Usually, they are searching for someone that I am connected to, and end up looking at my profile.

For many years my kids have had Facebook and MySpace pages, and because of my interest in Family Safety, I took my own advice and created pages on those sites just so I could "connect" with my children and keep an eye on what they are posting - I never actually intended to make use of those networks.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I recieved a "friend request" from a professional acquiantance on Facebook. As I started looking into it, I realized that there are plenty of adults using Facebook to connect professionally. Color me surprised. I actually started receiving friend requests from people I have worked with in the past, and whom I respect professionally. Most of these people are already connected to me on LinkedIn, but it appears as though they are much more actively participating in Facebook - updating their "wall", posting comments about what they are working on, etc.

This has me thinking - how many social networking pages does one need in order to be plugged in today? There are features of each site that I like - but in the end, it isn't really about what I like - it is about how people can find me and connect with me, how they can share professional opportunities with me, and how those with similar interests can get in touch with me. I used to think that a LinkedIn account was enough - but I am now reconsidering that.

Maybe it is time for me to start looking at twitter...