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Tech Tips: Protecting Kids Online Begins With Sheltered Searching and Surfing

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The Internet has emerged as a revolutionary educational tool, providing children with access to an instant, open and evolving encyclopedia of limitless knowledge. But the Web also introduces kids to -- and assails them with -- knowledge best learned at a later date, or perhaps never at all. Since search engines serve as the first intermediary between kids and an unending array of porn, profanity and pervs, it's absolutely imperative to limit and exclude immediate access to specific words, images and sites.

Various companies and browsers, including Google and Firefox, offer free options. Google's SafeSearch, which filters both images and search results, serves as an established, easy and free option. It has, however, drawn complaints for allowing unwanted material to filter through, and for blocking access to harmless sites, photographs and information. Firefox's FoxFilter definitely offers more detailed and intricate features that can completely restrict access to any unwanted material. Of particular interest to parents are FoxFilter's so-called "whitelists," which are solely comprised of parent-approved sites. Children will only be granted access to those preselected websites, with all other destinations excluded. Parents who wish to grant a little more surfing freedom can customize detailed lists of red-flag keywords and sites. FoxFilter does, however, charge a minimal registration fee ($9.99 for basic access, and $14.99 for a hyper-customized offering).

A variety of paid services exist with elaborate blockade options. CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, McAfee and Safe Eyes all provide extensive filtering categories, and allow for customized catalogs of blocked material. The majority of these products also generate detailed history reports, but only some, like Net Nanny, generate violation reports. Net Nanny is probably the most popular product, but McAfee's recent acquisition of Safe Eyes could create a particularly unyielding method of Internet enforcement.

Internet safety definitely begins with search protection, but a host of online activities demand supervision -- or even exclusion. If parents plan to allow more that just surfing and learning, paid options become an essential 'Net need. Most products provide similar services, for similar prices, but some offer elevated features for specific activities. If parents want to permit social networking, gaming, chatting, e-mailing or file-sharing -- while actively monitoring and controlling a child's activity, of course -- it's extremely important to investigate which apps and services address a parent's personal and specific demands. For a parent, getting as hands-on as possible with your child's browsing habits is crucial. Customization and vigilance will help address each specific need, but our most important tip is to sit down with your child and encourage safe, healthy 'Net habits early on.

Tags: ChildSafety, cybersitter, firefox, foxfilter, InternetSafety, McAffee, NetNanny, ParentalControls, SafeEyes, SafeSearch, techtips, tips, top