ATLANTA — When parents ask me about computer programs designed to protect children online, my reply is often a disappointment.
I tell them that a computer program — no matter how sophisticated — can't protect a child. That's the parent's job. In fact, relying on such a program could create a false sense of security that could cause a parent to drop his guard and increase the risk to the child.
I wish it wasn't so. It's a real problem, and it would be wonderful if there were an easy, no fuss, no muss, solution. There are so many ways for a kid to get in trouble online — we've all read news stories of real tragedies. So it's both laudable that parents want to find a solution and sad that fixing things isn't as easy as buying a program.
There are plenty of programs to choose from — everything from software that blocks access to Xrated and violent Web content to programs that will, like a spy, secretly record every word of online chats.
For the sake of argument (although it would be a hard one to win), let's say all these programs work perfectly. For the moment we'll assume computer-savvy kids can't find a way around programs that block objectionable content. We'll also make the same wild assumption with spy programs that record online chats. For now, we'll say those programs are perfect and that even the smartest kid can't find and defeat them.
Even if that were so, these programs can't do the job.
There are so many computers in the world, so many cell phones that text, so many friends with computers, that any child has dozens of other options when it comes to getting online. And if he knows his parents are trying to block some of his options, there are plenty of places to turn.
Protecting the home computer but ignoring a world crammed full of online devices is like installing locks on some doors in your house but leaving others wide open.
So, if software isn't the answer, what is a parent to do?
You probably already know there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every kid, every family is different. For instance, do you have reason to believe your child has a problem or personality that makes him an extreme risk? Or do you just have a sensible concern that recognizes the dangers for any kid online?
If there is a special risk, if there are clues that lead you to believe your child is already flirting with trouble, you may need to get counseling for the child or come up with ways to work on the problem as a family. You'll use a long and frustrating battle plan that must be geared to your child and the specific problem. You won't find a blueprint for that in any newspaper column.
For kids who don't demonstrate a problem, there are safeguards that can help. But even here, these steps are general ones and should be modified based on the child's age and by the parents' philosophy. After all, it is the job and the right of the parent to make decisions on how to handle things.
These safeguards can include cutting off private access to a computer. Instead, the computer can be placed in a public part of the home like a den or family room.
And, if it makes sense to the parent, that computer can even be equipped with programs such as Net Nanny. You can find it at www.netnanny.com. It is one of the oldest and best of the programs of this kind. I've already told you I have little faith in programs like this. But you are the parent, and if you feel it is a useful tool in a more comprehensive family plan, more power to you.
The most effective protection will already be in place in some families. That's the ability to have enough credibility with your child to have an open and frank conversation about the dangers.
Maybe you already see the irony here: A program can't protect a child who is especially at risk, and such a program may not be needed for a kid who isn't at risk.
There are also plenty of resources that offer suggestions for online safety. Some of these organizations think highly of computer programs designed to protect kids online, others don't.
All of them offer valuable information for the parent to consider and weigh.
Here are several Web links to sites like that:
Most of those sites have links to still other sources of information about online safety. That's a lot of homework for any parent, but it's useful information.
Read what's out there, and talk to your kids about all this. There's no magic set of rules either for protecting your child online.