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Can Your Router Keep Your Kids Safe Online?

Plenty of options exists to let you monitor and limit what kids can access on the Internet. You may need to look no further than your broadband router.

by Joseph Moran

If you've got a computer with an Internet connection and you have kids, you're probably more than a little concerned about things they might be exposed to while online. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to both monitor and limit what they have access to while using the computer — commonly referred to as content filtering or parental controls. This week, we'll look at the pros and cons of several methods.

Basic Router-Based Filtering
Depending on your needs, you may not have to look any further than the broadband router you already own, because many models offer some degree of basic content filtering. This usually includes the capability to restrict access to your Internet connection based on a schedule you set up, as well as block access to Web sites. Most routers will also maintain a log of Internet activity and allow you to receive e-mail alerts when anything untoward occurs, such as an attempt to access a restricted web site.

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The major benefit of using a router's basic filtering feature is that it doesn't require you to buy any new hardware or software. But there are several drawbacks as well, the biggest of which is limited filtering capability. For example, while you'll be able to prevent access to a given Web site (or perhaps groups of sites if you specify a keyword rather than a particular URL), there are countless potentially harmful sites and no practical way to proactively filter all of them using only your router.

Software-Based Filtering To get more comprehensive protection, you'll want to turn to a product specifically designed for content filtering. This might include a stand-alone parental-control utility or a firewall with parental control features (such as those from companies like McAfee, Symantec and ZoneLabs). Products like these check sites against a database (which is updated regularly) to determine whether a site's contents pass muster. This will allow you to filter Web sites based on dozens of categories you may not want children exposed to (e.g., sex, drugs, real estate) rather than only a handful of specific sites. Parental control software also usually lets you easily restrict access not just to Web sites, but to network-enabled applications too (such as instant messaging or file-sharing clients).

Another major benefit of using parental control software is flexibility. For example, many software products let you create multiple user accounts and apply different filtering rules to each, which beats a one-size fits (or blocks) all approach particularly if you have children that are more than a couple of years apart in age.

A downside to the software method can be the cost, which will usually range anywhere from $40 to $80. Another catch — parental control software is almost always sold on an annual subscription basis rather than as a one-time payment, so you should expect to pay the same amount (or in some cases a bit less) each subsequent year you use the software. On the plus side, software vendors have come to realize the ubiquity of multiple computer households, and thus most have license agreements that allow you to legally install the software on several systems (typically, up to three).

This brings us to another limitation of parental-control software — namely, that it can only do it's job on the computer you installed it on. As described above, this can result in the inconvenience of having to install and configure it several times, but more importantly it may also mean potential loopholes where no restrictions can be enforced (say, if someone brings over their own laptop).

The Best of Both Worlds
The best way to overcome this limitation is to use a router with parental control features that go beyond the rudimentary filtering described earlier, and some router vendors (including D-Link, Linksys and Netgear) do offer models with subscription-based parental control features. (D-Link actually offers a combination hardware/software product that works in conjunction with your existing router). Devices like these typically provide features and flexibility similar to software-based parental control products, but enforce rules for every system that connects to your network.

As with software, cost is still something to consider, because routers with integrated parental controls generally cost more (sometimes twice as much) than equivalent devices without the feature. And just like with parental control software, you'll still need to pony up for ongoing subscription fees.

If cost is a concern, your operating system may also offer some built-in parental controls of its own. Unfortunately, you won't find any in Windows XP, but Windows Vista offers a few capabilities you may not even find in subscription-based products. One of them is the option to set up complex Internet access schedules (for instance, to allow access between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. -9 p.m., rather than only in a continuous block). Another is the capability to let you control access to a game by its ESRB rating, to prevent younger kids from playing, say, an M-rated game.

Finally, we'd be remiss not to mention that Mac OS X offers a similar set of parental control options (and yes Apple fans, the Mac had them before Windows).

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.

For more help, don't forget to try one of our PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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