Internet Safety...

What You Always Wanted to Know About Filtering Software but were afraid to ask...

Chart of Filtering Software with Updates

I am often asked to explain the difference between filtering and blocking software. Since most major software products do both, as well as other things, the difference isn't important. It is important to understand how they work, though...In addition, few parents understand that they can purchase software that tracks where their children go online, while still permitting them free online access. We'll discuss this too...

Blocking Software:

Blocking software is software that uses a "bad site" list. It blocks access to sites on the list. Some of the software companies allow you to customize the list, by adding or removing sites from that list. Other software companies try to keep the sites on their list secret, and don't permit parents to add or remove sites from the list.

Blocked site lists need to be updated regularly. Some software companies allow you to download updated sites daily. Others may charge for updates after a certain period, and may update their lists less frequently.

No matter how frequently they are updated, however, the number of websites published each day far exceeds the ability of the software companies to review the sites, and categorize them for "bad site" lists.

Out of approximately 4 million separate websites in existence (each website may contain 2 or more separate webpages and the number of separate files, pages and graphics online is estimated at one billion), only a small fraction have been reviewed, in aggregate, by all child protection software companies. The gap widens daily, with the 160,000 new websites registered each month. "Bad sites" will inevitably get through.


Filtering is what fills the gap between the reviewed "bad sites" and the mass of other websites on the Internet. I allows the site to be reviewed "on the fly" by scanning the site for certain keywords that they believe might be contained in a site that should be blocked. Filtering products block sites containing these keywords, alone or in context with other keywords. Software that uses standalone keywords may often filter out harmless sites, because of the inclusion of innocent words within those sites. "Butt" may be a preselected keyword, and software that doesn't filter in context, would block access to sites containing the word "button." "Sex" as a filtered term may result in the blocking of the latest website for "sextuplets," or "Sussex," England.

The biggest problem with using keyword filtering is that innocent sites may be blocked. In addition, some website operators have learned to get around the filtering by misspelling the typical keywords. (Or maybe they just can't
spell? ;-> ) <-----if you don't know what that means, check out my Netiquette page.

As with the "bad site" lists, the lists of keywords used by the filtering software should be customizable by the parent, and every parents should be able to see which terms are filtered.

Some software permits parents to select which kind of sites it wants to filter...such as tobacco products, or sexual content. Selecting the category of content enables a certain list of keywords unique to that category of sites, such as cigarettes, tobacco, and words that graphically describe sexual activities or selected vulgarities. One parent might choose to filter drug-related sites, while another may not. It should be up to the parent, not the software manufacturer.

Outgoing Filtering:

No...this doesn't mean you have an extra friendly software program <g> (that's cyberspace talk for "grin" and means you're supposed to smile at my brilliant humor, and you can learn more about these emoticons at my netiquette page). It means that certain information that a child may want to share with others can't be
shared. Information such as her name, address or telephone number can be programmed into the software, and every time she tries to send it to someone online, it merely shows up as "XXX." Even with kids who know and follow your rules, this is a terrific feature, since sometimes, even the best kids forget.

In my opinion, sharing personal information online with strangers is far more dangerous to children than seeing a naked body, or seeing someone smoking cigarettes.

Monitoring and Tracking:

Some software allows parents to track where their children go online, how much time they spend online, how much time they spend on the computer (offline, such as playing games) and even allows parents to control what times of day their children can use the computer.

Many parents who find filtering or blocking distasteful, especially with older children and teens, find monitoring to satisfy their safety concerns. They can know, for sure, whether their children are following their rules.

This is particularly helpful when both parents are working outside of the home, or with working single-parents, who want to make sure their children aren't spending all of their time on the computer. They merely set a limit on the amount of time the child can use the computer and often "lock their children out" of the computer until they can get home from work.

Not all of these products, however, let the child know they are tracking them. I think that parents should tell their children about the software. It fosters trust.

Comparing the Products:

We have put together an updated chart comparing these features for the four most popular parental control software programs. In the meantime, here's some information on the products we tested and how they work. If you want to reach the websites of each of the software companies, just click on their name:

Net Nanny allow parents to customize its "bad site" list, by adding or removing sites. It's the only one that let's you see what's on the list...the other companies keep their lists "secret." It blocks outgoing information and tracks where a child has been. It has free daily updates. It also can limit the amount of time a child spends online and using the computer.

It's better when used with direct ISP access, rather than online services. In addition, parents can chose what to block and what not to block, since Net Nanny allows you to see which sites are blocked and modify the list. Net Nanny has two special features: it shuts down if a child seeks to access blocked sites to many times, and it prevents children from deleting files from your computer.

CyberPatrol has some wonderful features, but only uses a blocked site list, not a filtering on the fly technology. You can have up to 9 different user settings, which allows you to use a different setting for each child. It doesn't filter or track where your child has been, but it can control offline, as well as online, activities. CyberPatrol updates its lists daily, and comes with a three-year subscription of free updates. It has outgoing blocking. It's the best product to use with online services, such as AOL. It also can limit the amount of time a child spends online and using the computer.

CYBERSitter allows parents to customize their keyword and site lists. It doesn't warn a child when it blocks a site, though, something that I wish it did. It allows parents to monitor their child's online surfing by giving parents a tracking report and blocks outgoing information. It has free daily updates, too. It also can limit the amount of time a child spends online and using the computer.

SurfWatch is the only product that doesn't block outgoing information. I'm very disappointed in this, since I think that is the single most important feature a parental control software program can offer. Because of this...I recommend that you do not purchase this product. It's the easiest to install and setup, though. It also has a very large good and bad site list inventory. It can block access to chatrooms, entirely, and allows parents to customize the site lists. It has free daily site updates for six months. After that you have to buy a subscription.