Protecting children from the variety of bad influences out there on the Internet is a high priority for many parents. Not surprisingly, there is a wide range of products available to help. Large service providers -- including America Online (AOL), MSN (MSFT), and EarthLink (ELNK) -- offer parental controls that will keep kids away from inappropriate Web sites. If that's not an option, there are many services, including CyberPatrol, Net Nanny, and Surf Control, each about $40, that will do the same thing.
There's one product, though, that takes parental control in a disturbing direction. Kid Defender from Actiontec Electronics (actiontec.com) offers the traditional parental-control bells and whistles that are designed to keep children and teenagers away from nasty Web sites and dubious chat rooms. But it also gives parents the ability to spy on their kids' online activities. The program is available either as a $79.95 purchase, including a year's use of the required service, or as a $9.95 monthly subscription.
If you have two or more computers -- which need not be linked on a home network as long as both have access to the Internet -- you can monitor what your kids are doing on their computer as they do it. When they go to a Web site, the address and an image of the Web page pop up in the Kid Defender monitor window. If they visit a chat room or engage in instant messaging sessions on AOL, MSN, ICQ, or Yahoo! (YHOO) the text of the conversation also shows up. To streamline this, you can set up lists of "trusted" Web sites, chat rooms, and messaging partners that will not be monitored. If you only have one computer, activity can be saved to a log for later review.
Unfortunately, Kid Defender doesn't control or monitor Web sites very well. It blocks access based on keywords, while more sophisticated programs use rules and lists compiled by people who check sites out. With Kid Defender's blocking on, I was able, when using the "kid" computer, to get to a raunchy site. All I saw on the "dad" monitor was a numerical Internet address and a few numbers where the screen image should have been.
Monitoring of chat rooms and instant messaging sessions worked much better, with the text of conversations showing up as it was typed. But just because technology gives you the ability to do something doesn't make it a good idea. As a parent (admittedly of grown and independent children), I believe the remote chance of kids' getting into serious trouble on the Internet is swamped by the enormous damage that will be done to your relationship when, not if, they discover that you have been spying on them. If you feel you must monitor their activity this way, at least let them know you are doing it.
Time-Scout Monitor ($69.95) from Card Access (time-scout.com) is a much happier approach to a simpler problem: kids spending too much time on the computer, playing video games, or watching television. It's a unit that looks a bit like a cell-phone charger connected by a six-foot cord to a display unit about the size of a pack of cards. You plug the unit into a power outlet, then plug a monitor, game console, or TV into an outlet on the box, as though it were an extension cord. Just push a plunger, and the plug is mechanically locked in place. Parents can put time in kids' accounts in 30-minute increments by swiping a bar-coded card through a slot in the display unit. Kids spend the time in half-hour blocks by swiping their own cards. When time is running out, the children are prompted to spend more time or shut down. When time runs out, Time-Scout switches off the power.
Time-Scout works best either with a TV or monitor that does not have a detachable power cord -- or with young children who haven't figured out how to game the system. Any child 8 or older could just replace the power cord that runs through the Time-Scout with another cord, circumventing the device.
Time-Scout strikes me as a better product for helping parents. It's still up to the parents to set the limits, and Time-Scout merely helps enforce them in a nonconfrontational way. Kid Defender is the high-tech version of sneaking a look at your kid's diary or listening in surreptitiously on a phone conversation. There's a remote chance it will keep a child out of trouble, but a much better one that it will cause lasting damage to your relationship. By Stephen H. Wildstrom