Shielding Kids From Web Porn and Violence

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In blocking enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act this summer because it is probably unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court said anyone who wants to shield children from harmful online material can find less restrictive methods than a federal law.

Try Internet filters, the court majority suggested.

A lot of youth agencies have, and so did Youth Today – because if youth-serving agencies that give kids access to the Internet don’t want them to connect to certain content, such as pornography and violence, or to give out personal information in chat rooms, it looks as if they’ll have to install the roadblocks themselves.

There’s plenty of reason for concern: A 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 70 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds who had gone online accidentally stumbled across pornography. A survey conducted by the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center in 2000 found that one out of four youths who used the Internet regularly was exposed to unwanted pornography, and nearly one in five encountered unwanted sexual approaches.

Then there’s the phenomenon of chat rooms, where many youth say they’ve been asked for personal information or have been sexually pursued by a chat room visitor who turned out to be an adult.

The online protection act tried to address these problems by forbidding the posting of online material that is “harmful to minors.” The Supreme Court sent a lawsuit challenging the act back to a lower court for trial over issues such as free speech restrictions.

However, another federal law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, might apply to some youth organizations. It requires organizations receiving federal e-rate discounts for Internet connectivity to employ some form of filtering. Regardless of that requirement, installing filters can assure parents, funders and board members that an organization promotes responsible Internet use.

Filtering, however, is an imperfect science. Ed Mishrell, vice president of technology services for the Boys & Girls Club of America (BGCA), notes that even the best programs are either too porous, allowing access to inappropriate sites, or too restrictive, preventing access to relevant information, such as sex education.

Gail Breslow, director of the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network (which has 90 sites across the world), adds that some resourceful teens can hack into the programs to access the sites they want; that filters can cause technical glitches, interfering with other software; and that filtering software doesn’t substitute for educating youth on media literacy.

Mishrell of the BGCA suggests that “filtering software can be one part of an organization’s Internet safety strategy, but the most important part is education.” Brad Gregory, program director at Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, based in Bartow, recommends that youth organizations combine filtering software with media education and adult supervision.

Two sites – www.netsmartz.org and www.staysafeonline.com – provide Internet safety education programs for youth. Some agencies, such as the BGCA of Hawthorne, N.J., require kids to review NetSmartz before using a computer.

When it comes to choosing a filter, American Library Association President Carole Brey-Casiano says the key is being able to customize it to fit the agency’s needs. While a filtering program’s default settings might prevent access to sex education material, some software lets users change the settings to allow access to all sites in a category or to specific sites.

In addition to commercial filtering options, youth organizations can tap into filters offered by Internet service providers. These filters may be economical, but they tend to employ more of a one-size fits all approach than do the software programs.
Here is a look at how several of the most prominent Internet filters stack up in terms of cost, ease of use, effectiveness and customization:

CyberPatrol
www.cyberpatrol.com

CyberPatrol sells one-year site licenses, which are easily downloaded from www.cyberpatrol.com. Prices range from $39 for a single work station to $825 for 25 work stations. A 14-day free trial allows users to test drive the program before buying it.

The filter blocks 13 categories of questionable websites, including sex education, adult content, violence and hacking information. It takes just a few minutes to set up the filter. During initial setup, a supervisor selects a password. The password is required to access the user headquarters, where individual organizations can fine-tune the filter and unblock entire categories, such as sex education, or open a site that is being blocked but should not be. For example, the program blocked access to one page in an online zoo game called Backyard Jungle. The page was easily opened through the on-line user headquarters.

Although the default setting bars access to sex education sites such as www.plannedparentood.org, the filter allows access to information about sexually transmitted diseases and contraception on www.kidshealth.org, www.teensource.org, and the sites of Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). CyberPatrol effectively blocked access to pornographic sites.

CyberPatrol offers some chat protection through ChatGard, which allows users to configure the filter to prevent kids from sharing their names and addresses in chat rooms.

One advantage of the subscription arrangement is that customers can re-install updates as they become available online. CyberPatrol updates its block lists weekly and encourages customers to suggest sites for blocking.

Bess
www.securecomputing.com

This server-based program comes with one-, two- and three-year subscriptions. The price is based on how many users have access to the service, and begins at around $900. This industrial-strength filtering program typically requires a system administrator for initial setup. Bess allows for a lot of customization, but requires a level of technical expertise that small organizations might not have.

(Because this is a server-based program, it was evaluated through a guided product demonstration rather than an independent test.)

Sales engineer Todd Newman says many organizations start by blocking obvious categories, such as pornography and hate/discrimination sites, and monitoring other categories. The more than 40 block categories include personal, murder/suicide and chat. If a site chooses to allow chat, Bess does not dictate what is posted on chat sites, which could potentially allow kids users to share personal information like names and addresses in chat.

Bess also features six categories of exceptions to the blocking, including, history and medicine. This allows organizations that block pornography or nudity sites to allow users to view nudity in a medical context.

A “custom category” feature allows organizations to create a list of blocked or allowed sites. For example, an organization might create a list of allowable sex education websites limited to reliable sources of information for teens. An override tool allows supervisors to temporarily unblock restricted sites. Suppose a youth is researching the issue of medicinal marijuana. The administrator can give that youth a user name and password to allow access to drug sites for a certain period of time.

All of the program’s block and allow options can be applied in a blanket fashion or individualized for certain user groups (by age) or for certain computers. A subscription to Bess includes nightly updates and technical support.

Cybersitter
www.cybersitter.com

Cybersitter sells licenses to educational institutions for $9.95 per seat, and corporate licensing at $199.50 for 10 seats. Youth organizations might qualify for the educational rate.

Cybersitter’s default setting blocks sex, drug, hate and violence sites, as well as image searches. The program comes with nearly 40 content categories, including cults, gay/lesbian information, game sites and tattoos/piercing.

The program’s default setting barred access to the sites of Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth and SIECUS, but allowed access to information on sexual health at www.kidshealth.org.

A search for information on HIV provided minimal resources, directing the searcher to eBay and medication information rather than health sites. If a user attempts to search for pornography, the program redirects him to youth-friendly sites, such Smithsonian Magazine’s www.kidscastle.org.

Youth organizations can fine-tune Cybersitter by adding sites that are always allowable, such as the ones above that were blocked, or by denying access to certain designated sites or any sites that contain certain words or phrases. Cybersitter was robust, but seemed prone to overblocking.

Net Nanny
www.netnanny.com

Like many programs, this software allows youth organizations to control access to online content in websites, e-mail and chat rooms. Net Nanny distinguishes itself by allowing users to easily access its block list, so supervisors can determine which sites will be blocked. Site licenses are sold on a sliding scale, ranging from $34.98 for two licenses to $15 each for 100 or more licenses.
Net Nanny features a default setting called the Anybody user. During a test of the Anybody user, Net Nanny permitted access to contraceptive and sexually transmitted disease information on www.kidshealth.org and to the sites of Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth and SIECUS. Although Net Nanny features a hefty list of restricted pornographic search terms, it did allow access to Web pages touting penis and breast enlargement tools.

Organizations can customize the program by adding restricted or permitted sites and restricted or permitted search terms. In one instance, Net Nanny blocked access to the LookSmart search engine.

Overall, Net Nanny appeared to slow down Internet functioning and seemed less effective than other filtering options.