10. Call on software for assistanceWhile no technology is fail-safe, it does add another layer of protection. "The key is to make sure you have something that reflects your values and is just technological help, as opposed to trying to take over your role as a parent," says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit Internet safety and education organization with several websites. So make sure you can make changes to fit your family's needs.Though these six tools will cost you, most offer a free trial period, and all are champs at doing your bidding. Just ask yourself, what's your primary goal?
* Shutting out the smut (and other undesirables)
Best for parents who want maximum protection with minimal effort, CyberPatrol 6.2 deflects objectionable web content with a twofold filtering technique. It blocks sites on its comprehensive list of restricted web addresses, then does keyword pattern searches for offensive material on non-blacklisted sites that may have slipped through the cracks.
You decide: How much to customize. You can allow certain categories (Sex Education but not Adult/Sex, for instance); add your own blocked or allowed sites or keywords; and more.
What your child sees: Varies from a bold "Access Restricted" notice (with the CyberPatrol "To Surf & Protect" shield) to a discreet "This page cannot be displayed" message.
Cost: $40 for one year/$60 for two; Windows, www.cyberpatrol.com
* Keep the Internet under lock and key
ControlKey 2.0 is The Enforcer. No key means no Internet access. The small blue device (part of the company's SecuriKey product line) plugs into a USB port and also serves as a watchdog for you. Children can do homework-related research but not waste time IM'ing; they can open their own documents but not your desktop check register. Setup is a little tricky and time-consuming. But once installed and configured (according to what you want to control or protect), it's easy to use and a good choice for parents who want stronger restrictions or are dealing with kids who broke the rules. You'll just need to guard it like your car key. Register so the ControlKey "token" can be replaced ($45) if lost.
You decide: What to lock up: access to files you'd like to keep private? A particular computer game? Certain sites?
What your child sees: "Access Denied" message (when the computer is restricted) or "This page cannot be displayed" (Internet restricted).
Cost: $60; Windows, 800-986-6578 or www.controlkey.com
* A pristine site for young surfers
Instead of keeping out what's bad, Kidsnet keeps in what's good, and only that. Every website on its vast "white list" has been vetted and classified according to Internet Content Rating Association and Kidsnet standards. Home page Hazoo is well stocked with web offerings (even a Google search box), ranging from pbskids.org to hilaryduff.com.
You decide: What to exclude and include and how subtly to draw the distinction. What your child sees: "Ahoy mate!" A pirate or another cartoon appears on a "redirect" page, telling kids why they can't go to an off-limits site and offering two alternatives.Cost: $30/year; Windows, www.kidsnet.com
* Something to keep you safe online, too
Norton Internet Security 2006 provides everything: parental control over web content and Internet access, virus defense, spam blocking, privacy preservation, and firewall fortification. That makes it a good choice for families with general security concerns and less commitment to content-oriented parental controls (a small part of the protection package) and for those with older children plagued by spam and other system interlopers.
While setup takes a while -- you'll need to uninstall conflicting software, and it's best to back up your computer before you start -- it's easy to customize and manage all five programs included from a main "System Status" screen.
You decide: When to turn on parental controls; which of 31 content categories are blocked; whether to restrict programs that access the Internet; how high to set controls over sending private information.
What your child sees: Message that Norton "blocked access to this restricted site" and why.
Cost: $70/$90; Windows/Macintosh, www.symantec.com
* Knowing exactly what they've been up to online
When a child is using the computer, Spector 2.2 takes snapshots of what's onscreen at intervals and stores them in a hidden file to record all they do. You then view the file like a video (play, pause, fast-forward, rewind).
It's best for parents who have reason to believe a child is breaking the rules or is being victimized (or who want to keep a record, just in case). Just be aware that a program like this can erode trust if you use it to spy on kids without cause or on the sly.
You decide: Degree of sneakiness, between stealth mode and visible (a tiny red box in the system tray); whether to record everything or only activities involving Internet access; how often to capture images and when to delete them.
What your child sees: In stealth mode, the program is invisible.
Cost: $100; Windows/Macintosh, 888-598-2788 or www.spectorsoft.com