Help keep your children safe online

As parents, we all want to ensure that our kids are not accessing inappropriate content on the Internet or being targeted by cyber bullies or predators. There is a huge range of solutions on the market that help monitor and control children’s online usage, all with a variety of price tags, and so choosing the right software can be confusing and very time consuming. To help you make the right choice, here are some great tips on what functionality you should look for and an overview of some of the great free programs that will ensure your children stay safe online.

Parental control software: What to look for
When evaluating a parental control utility, there are a number of essential functions you should look for. Any good one should block access to inappropriate websites and content in categories selected by you, the parents. It should work no matter what browser or device your child uses. A time management function should allow you to define a weekly schedule for when your child is permitted to surf the Internet, play games and chat online. Ideally, it should produce reports that enable you to easily check up on your child’s online activities, producing detailed records of online searches, accessed websites and usage patterns. The better parental control tools should also enable you to define different configurations for different children.

You may think that all this functionality is bound to cost the earth, but that is where you are wrong. There are a number of great free programs that can be downloaded to ensure you are fully in control and that your children don’t run into trouble. Two very good all-round programs that offer full-scale parental control are Norton Family Online and Windows Live Family Safety.

Norton Family Online is a powerful parental control tool with plenty of very useful features, all meeting the above criteria. You can block access to websites by URL and type, such as “pornography”, “gambling”, “shopping” – there are 40 categories in total. It also enables you to set times when your children are allowed to use the computer. The reporting function is excellent and allows you to see which sites are being visited, web searches, monitors instant messaging and sends email alerts if problems are identified (attempts to access blocked content etc.). Norton Family Online is easy to set up and you can configure the program separately for different children.

Windows Live Family Safety is Microsoft’s parental control solution, part of their virus protection software, Windows Live Essentials. It can track each of your children’s Internet usage across multiple computers (a feature not found in all of the paid for products), as well as track instant messaging conversations and control who your kids can chat with. Windows Live allows you to limit games your children can play based on ESRB ratings (to make sure they are age appropriate). Like Norton Family Online, it also offers remote management, detailed reports and email alerts on any violation. If you are using Windows Live Essentials (Microsoft’s free virus protection software) on your family computers it makes sense to enable the Family Safety component. If not, it does require quite a lot of time and energy to set up from scratch.

Social Networking Worries
Social networking has become one of the most popular things to do on the Internet. But with access to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, comes an added risk to your kids from predators and infringements of their privacy. In light of this, a new breed of parental monitoring programs, aimed specifically at social networking, has emerged in recent years. What is great for us worried parents is that some of these tools are free as well!

SocialShield tracks your child’s activity on several social networks including Facebook, MySpace, twitter and Google+. It has an online dashboard which summarises all activity and highlights potential problems like risky posts or a suspicious new friend. You can leave your kids some privacy by only viewing the alerts, but if a significant problem arises, the entire social network activities across the sites are available. MinorMonitor is focused on Twitter and Facebook. It closely monitors postings, up-loads and list of friends, offering similar warnings of offensive posting and dodgy activities. MinorMonitor displays some interesting statistics, for example, it graphs Facebook activity by hour on all the separate days of the week, so you can tell whether your children are using Facebook at inappropriate times.

Lots of Choices
So which tool do you use? The choice is up to you and your personal preferences and requirements. What I love is that there is a choice of quality and highly capable free tools out there, which will give you peace of mind that you are doing all you can to protect your children from the dangers of cyber space. You don’t have to make a commitment with your wallet, why not download them, try them out and see which ones suit you best?

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