Small & Home Office
Protecting Our Kids from Cyberporn
By J. Doe*
I HAVE a problem. On a professional level, I usually deal with Internet pornography situations several times a year. But this time, it's hit home. I guess I knew in the back of my mind this ugly beast would surface one day, but I was hoping I'd never have to face it.
I love and trust my kids, but I've learned that teenagers easily can access stuff on the 'Net that blows my mind. I followed the rules the experts tell us to do:
1. Put the home computer in an open space, not in the teen's bedroom.
2. Designate the hours of use.
3. Periodically walk out and let them know you know they're on the 'Net.
4. Most important: Talk openly and honestly about using the 'Net and avoiding adult sites.
Like many families, we have a computer at home and recently installed DSL. I've had talks with my children and, until recently, trusted their judgment and their word to not visit pornographic sites. But the temptation is there and it is so easy.
In my professional career, I've dealt with this issue at different levels in different settings. It's never easy to handle these situations in the office but prevention usually starts with an Internet Use Policy that states that the computers and Internet access belong to the company. Anything outside of the intended use is outside the boundaries of the policy and therefore subject to immediate dismissal. But an Internet use policy is hard to enforce at home.
Just how easy is it to access pornographic sites? There are several ways. Try typing in a random URL, such as www.xxxsexforall.com. You'd be surprised at what you find. Or, go to an Internet search engine and type in any pornographic term. Most adult sites have a warning: "If you are not over 18 years old or if adult graphic material bothers you, don't enter." Now, I ask you. How many teenagers do you think will not "enter" the forbidden zone? Click and buff!
I was a teen once. I certainly would have been tempted to visit these places had they existed.
How did I find out? Whether you use Internet Explorer or Netscape, browsers maintain a history of where the user has been and a cache directory that keeps a temporary copy of graphics. I first reviewed the history to see if there were any suspicious-looking URLs. I then looked in the cache directories. Most files in this cache directory have weird indecipherable names, like M03M1HPR.JPG. It makes no sense to me, but that's how they are stored in the cache. In Netscape, the cache directory is usually located under /netscape/ user/username/cache. In Internet Explorer, it depends on the Windows operating system you use. In the later versions (Windows 2000, XP), the folder is hidden and you have to work to find it. Use the operating system's file manager to view the contents of these directories.
Because JPGs and GIFs are the graphic formats most heavily used on the Net, you can do a search on your computer's hard disk for these type files, then sort them by date to get an idea of when they were accessed.
My child, like most teens who use the 'Net, is smart and has figured out how to clear the history and the cache. Both Internet Explorer and Netscape have this capability (under Edit/Preferences for Netscape and Tools/Internet Options for Internet Explorer). That takes care of erasing the audit trail within the browsers.
But, because I'm a parent, I'm supposed to be smarter than my kids. (I confess, it helps that I'm technologically savvy.)
With a little digging, I found some "Internet cookies" my teenager missed. The location of cookie files will vary, depending on the operating system you use. Cookie files have names like, "username"@url.com An example might be email@example.com. That's how I tracked my kid's visits. What was more disturbing to me was the number of cookies from the same location. That clued me as to what, where, when, and how often.
What did I do? I talked with my spouse about what I found and asked for advice. I was tempted to yank the plug, but I didn't want to fly off the handle. While my partner is not as computer literate as I (or my offspring), it helped sharing my frustrations and fears and talk through how to deal with this. There is no "user manual" for raising kids. I was a teenager once; I certainly would have been tempted to visit these places had they existed. I also talked with another parent who has both a teenage son and daughter and it helped getting another parent perspective.
I remember as a teenager myself one of the worst things my parents did to me was to let me "think about it." I thought if I could create an initial "shock" something to let my kid know that I knew, and provide a little something "to think about."
So I got on the computer and went to one of the porno sites recently visited and did a "screen capture," porno and all. Then, I added the message, "A picture is worth a thousand words. Turn off the computer now and we'll talk tomorrow." It was a very graphic picture -- pornography "mechanics" big time. I then installed it on the computer as the screen desktop background. That way when the computer was turned on, the "new" screen would appear. Then my child would know that I knew.
That night, my teen went out to the computer room and turned on the machine. I sat waiting, and waiting, and waiting. After about 10 minutes, I walked out, gave a stern look and "suggested" it would be a good idea to turn off the computer. A few minutes later, my kid emerged, came out, mumbled a somber "Hi," and went back into the bedroom. Didn't hear another peep that night.
The next day, I knew I had to have a talk. It's one of those "talks" parents dread. My kid had been caught doing something wrong and I had to have a confrontation. This may sound weird, but I've always found it easier to have these types of talks in the car. If you have to look someone in the eye, the expressions often alter the conversation.
I had to let my child know that what was done, while wrong, was normal for a teen. (That's a very important message to hormone-hyped kids of either gender!)
Initially, the silence was deafening. We both knew we needed to talk and we both knew about what. I said something like, "I guess you're waiting for me to start this conversation." Without missing a beat, my kid said, "I'll start." Whew, what a relief.
"I'm bound by the nature of being human," my child observed. Wow, I was impressed. "I'm a teenager and in these days and times, I do what most teenagers do I surf the 'Net. I know I visit places you wouldn't approve of, but they are there and I'm curious and that's pretty much it. I'm sorry I let you down." Those words still echo in my heart today. My teen was being completely honest.
"You are saying all the right things," I responded. "You accepted responsibility for your actions and are prepared to take the consequences. That is a big sign of maturity."
My kid was impressed with how I'd put the screen image on the desktop, and offered an opportunity to think about the situation before having a confrontation. That also made me feel good my strategy had worked!
I told my offspring that I had installed an Internet filter, Cybersitter -- and that I would not have installed it had this problem not surfaced. And that the $40 cost was going to be docked against upcoming allowance payments.
I got no objection.
Should I have "grounded" my kid from the 'Net? I didn't think that would suit any real purpose. The kid's somewhat of an Internet guru, gamer, and "go to" resource for peer problems and advice. I didn't want to take that away.
Cybersitter is one of several off-the-shelf Internet filters. Most work by "reading" all text that come through the Internet. For example, anything with xxx in the URL would be filtered. Cybersitter actually allows the user to type in the URL, but if it finds it is one of the restricted sites it actually redirects the Web browser to a "safe" site, such as National Geographic or Save
the Whale project. There is a list of about 30 categories you can choose to filter.
The list not only includes categories like adult, gambling, and hate, but also sports, financial, and others. It also provides an audit trail so you can see what the user has tried to access and what was filtered.
Besides Web sites, I also needed the capability to filter chat rooms and "instant messenger" functions.
For me, the Cybersitter Internet filter was only part of the answer to this dilemma. It solved (at least temporarily) the technology problem.
My child is certainly smart enough to figure out a way of getting around the filter, if really motivated. But instead, I think the whole ordeal was a learning experience for both of us. You have to be up front and honest. It's different at home; all the rules of engagement change.
* J. Doe is a member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board, whose name is being withheld to protect the privacy of the child. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll forward mail.