About Parental Controls

It would be wonderful if parents could simply purchase a set of “controls” that would instruct children in online safety and screen out dangers.  While of course no piece of software can do all of this, parental controls combined with online safety education and some common sense rules for Internet use are a parent’s best strategy for keeping children safe online. Parents must always keep in mind that parental controls are not a substitute for parental involvement and safety education.  

Parental controls originated in the 1990s on personal computers. As online technology has spread to other consumer devices such as mobile phones, media players, and gaming consoles, parental controls have developed to help parents manage these devices as well.   In recent years, parental controls have spread to televisions, DVD players and even automobiles — which are beyond the scope of this guide of online parental controls.  Today there are over 100 products offering some form of parental controls.

Parental controls provide one or more of five main functions: content filtering; use restrictions; contact management; privacy protections; and monitoring.  Here is a brief overview of each area:

Content Filtering
Content restrictions are most often included in Internet parental controls, particularly the ability to restrict access to specific types of web sites deemed inappropriate for children.  Content filtering is also included in gaming consoles to restrict access to mature video games, as well as media players to restrict access to music with explicit lyrics.

Use Restrictions
Use restrictions are limits on which features or programs of a device a child can use.  Internet use restrictions can include blocking applications like e-mail or instant messaging.  Gaming consoles and mobile phones can limit functions like Internet access or the ability to purchase items online, or to use functions like a camera.  Use restrictions also include time management functions that allow parents to limit the times a child is allowed to use a device.

Contact Management
Contact management functions allow parents to control who can contact a child through communication methods such mobile phones, e-mail, instant messaging, or social networks.  Contact management usually involves the parent managing a “white list” of approved e-mail addresses or phone numbers that are allowed to contact the child.  Many contact management functions also include “black lists” where the parent or child can “black list” a phone number or e-mail address so they are no longer able to contact the child.

Privacy Protections
Content filtering and contact management focus on blocking incoming information, privacy protections focus on blocking outgoing information.  Privacy protections include the ability to block the release of information the parent has deemed private, such as home address or phone number, or GPS data from a mobile phone that reveals location.

Monitoring enables the parent to record information about the child’s activities online.  Monitoring functions can include recording website visits, mobile phone call logs, e-mail exchanges or instant messaging transcripts, and even complete “screen capture” recordings that detail every activity online. 

An Overview of Parental Controls: Internet, Mobile Phones, Gaming Consoles, and Media Players

Internet parental controls are widely available through a number of mediums, including both the Windows and Mac operating systems; through Internet Service Providers; as software packages; as free online services; and as a feature of anti-virus security suites.    Most products are at their core either filtering products that offer specialized categories of websites for blocking or monitoring, or monitoring products that focus on creating a detailed record of Internet activity and offer very basic filtering.   In addition to filtering and monitoring, common features include the ability to block certain applications such as e-mail, limiting contacts, and time management.

Mobile Phones
As mobile phones had added features and online access, most of the same cautions that should be taken with Internet access should also apply to phones.  Mobile phones also carry the potential problem of “sexting” – the sending of sexual images via mobile phone cameras.  Fortunately, all major mobile phone providers in the United States offer parental controls, though features vary and there is usually a small monthly fee in addition to the charges to the phone itself.  Some phones such as Firefly and Kajeet are specifically designed for children, and offer much tighter controls and are especially good for younger children.   Monitoring of mobile calls and messages is a controversial area of online safety, as this involves privacy concerns but may be necessary in some circumstances.  Mobile phone providers have chosen to not offer monitoring capabilities, which they have left to software companies.   Unless you want to monitor text messages and e-mail sent via mobile phone, there really is little reason to buy additional software, since mobile providers typically offer the most popular features. 

Gaming Consoles
Many parents don’t realize that a gaming console can also be an Internet gateway – including to the web and chat rooms.  Some gaming consoles can be used to watch DVDs or TV as well.  Fortunately, all major gaming consoles now come with parental controls – no need to buy or even download anything.  Different gaming consoles offer different options, but all offer the ability to enforce the ESRB game ratings, as well as shut off Internet access, making them very safe for even young children.

Media Players
Media players such as the iPod were originally designed to play MP3 music files, so the only parental concern was restricting music with explicit lyrics.  However, the newest generation of media players are now packed with features that allow the playing of movies and in some cases Internet access.  Of the four most popular media player manufacturers, only Microsoft’s Zune and Apple’s iPod offer any parental controls at all.  Because media players are a rapidly evolving technology, parental controls are still catching up with the new features.

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