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The Complexity of Regulating Web Access for Kids



Recently I've been involved in numerous discussions about how to protect young kids from inappropriate material on the web. The first was prompted by a friend concerned about what appeared to be violent adult material sent to her young son by a friend. Not being an expert in the area I turned to Wendi Kamiya, Punahou's CTO, for advice. She explained Punahou's system, which uses various types of filtering including heuristics, white lists and black lists. Policies are adjusted on an ongoing basis and regular reviews are performed to determine if bad sites are getting through or educational sites are being blocked. Of course, they also do plenty of good old fashion manual monitoring. It sounds like they do an excellent job.


Obviously it isn't practical to implement a system like Punahou's on a home network, so the school recommends parents only allow computers to be connected in common areas. Computer use is permitted elsewhere so kids can, for example, program in their rooms, but they can only connect in common areas. This of course isn't a perfect solution because kids can jump on their neighbor's wireless network or use a smart phone. The iPhone and Nexus One have large, bright, high resolution screens and they are always connected. A friend of mine in Japan half-joked that an average Japanese teen has two or three IP addresses on their body at any time. Essentially, there isn't any way around manual monitoring. Based on my conversations with Wendi and other education IT specialists it sounds like the average parent who is not involved in IT will be surpassed by their kids in terms of technical sophistication around the age of 12. For some it will happen as young as 9 or 10.


Kids are increasingly technically sophisticated and motivated kids can usually find a way around any technical solution. I have friends with 10 year olds who are capable of setting up proxy servers. One of our friends has a 12 year old son who writes iPhone apps in Objective C without any assistance. Luckily his maturity seems to be in step with his technical aptitude, but anyone who thinks they can limit these kids access via technical means is kidding themselves.


I'm interested in hearing how those with kids in this age range deal with regulating web access.


A related blog post send to us by Jay Voss: Technology and Kids - Part 1 - Starting to pass you by


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Comment by Konstantin A Lukin on March 5, 2010 at 6:17pm
There are a number of commercial cyber nanny products available but, as you said, there is no perfect technical answer.
Cyber Nanny is an interesting concept, and somehow it rings a number of bells in my mind. First of all, it sounds like the whole cyber nanny market right now is in its infancy stages, as it really has huge potential. For example, I can see how cyber nannies can be used in combination with AI to produce a machine that 'learns' based on previous experiences about each particular environment it is in - in order to help humans with their every day tasks in an intelligent way. These 'nannies' could even 'evolve' one day to look and talk like we do, which is only a science fiction for now, but has very practical applications. I think there is no 'perfect technical answer' because we (humans) believe to be the decision makers and technology is a tool we use to accomplish every day tasks.

In a way, search engines are already becoming our digital nannies by suggesting search results they 'think' are most appropriate. Naturally search engines are evolving because we keep 'feeding' them with information. This could seem quite innocent for now, but could have evolving implications over time. Search engine data warehouses are currently 'collecting' information at growing rates, becoming more 'in tune' with our human functional capacities. Is it possible that machines can actually 'surpass' us in logical reasoning, and, if so, one day start making 'conscious' decisions? (independent from original programming due to 'overflow' of information?)

Anyway, apologies for such a long write-up and a bit off topic, was just inspired by the 'cyber nanny' talk. Thanks for mentioning it :)
Comment by Wendi Kamiya on March 1, 2010 at 11:48am
Thanks for the call and mention Dan. I'm glad to see others agree that real parenting is key...it's not easy (ask our parents!), and likely never will be. Teaching right from wrong while fostering curiosity, and taking those teachable moments...to teach!
Comment by R. Scott Belford on February 28, 2010 at 10:37pm
OpenDNS for the average home parent. SquidGuard and DansGuardian if you want to go the appliance route. Years ago, when the City allowed me to put wifi into parks, I had to assure them that I would filter the drek. I implemented the same solution for Chinatown's wifi before other decisions were made. Proxies can be defeated, too, depending on your upstream URL filtering sources and your port management. You can't be beat parenting, but I put this software stack, including logging, on a netbook.
Comment by Peter Kay on February 28, 2010 at 8:26pm
I think it's precisely because my kids were mouse-clicking since age 2 that I made a really big deal about teaching them about right and wrong line. Thanks for the kind words.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on February 28, 2010 at 8:16pm
Aloha Peter. Thank you for sharing your experience as a parent of kids in this age range. Based on my conversations with educators and education IT specialists it sounds like you are taking the best approach. Dialog and parental involvement trump tech solutions every time, even for people who are tech savvy such as the Kay family :-)
Comment by Peter Kay on February 28, 2010 at 7:47pm
Thanks for writing this post, Dan. As a parent of two girls in early teen/tween years, I can tell you the very best thing that has worked for us is to be highly involved with our children and making them aware of inappropriate activity (and actors) very early in their lives. That is, we made our kids aware of right and wrong especially as it applied to online behavior.

Second, we only have computers in our house in one office/bedroom. No computers or TVs in individual bedrooms. I can't tell you how many countless times we were able to point out inappropriate things to our kids from lewd lyrics and videos on YouTube to IMing friends in the middle of homework to submitting personal data on seemingly benign forms.

Technically, we don't have any kiddie protections installed. My feeling is that if you teach your kids right and wrong and reinforce that with clear examples of both, they will do a much better job of exercising judgement than any software can (at least today's state of the art).

Finally, my belief is that if you don't teach kids right and wrong and instead rely on software to keep them from taking a bite from the forbidden fruit, you're only giving them more curiosity to see what it is you're trying to hide. One of my kids would try to get round controls if only for curiosity. My other one would do it out of spite. Neither works.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on February 28, 2010 at 5:33pm
Hi Kostya - There are a number of commercial cyber nanny products available but, as you said, there is no perfect technical answer. It seems like the best solution is to rely on a combination of these tools and supervised connected sessions when they are very young and, as they reach the threshold where they will inevitably encounter this sort of material, ensure they have the mental tools to deal with it.
Comment by Konstantin A Lukin on February 28, 2010 at 1:22pm
After all, the forbidden fruit is the tastiest of them all!
From my own experience, this is usually the case. But really, I do not think there is a clear solution to regulating web access for kids. For one thing, it could be possible to setup commercial proxy servers and monitor all traffic, including media content, keep a 'live' list of offending sites, etc.. For a monthly fee, one could connect via these proxies, everyone in the family could have an account.

Another thing, I think, is giving proper 'family' education to kids, where they have their own awareness of the quality of information they'd like to participate in and share with others.

I think some balanced/healthy combination of these two points would be a safe enough alternative (at least for my kids) to strict regulatory measures.

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