Oct 31 2006

Technology Literacy: What Every Parent Should Know

Loving parents are, unfortunately, also often technology novices.

“In the end, the best method for filtering Internet content is parental supervision.”

Years ago, during my first tenure as a technology director in the Texas public school system, the Internet was just emerging as an educational resource that held the promise of removing the four walls of the classroom and opening up a world of learning.

For the inaugural run of our school’s new broadband line, 24 students sat eagerly in front of their computers, ready to roam the information highway. Before letting the trial class online, I reminded the students that we were watching and to avoid doing anything inappropriate. Satisfied that the warning was sufficient, I taught the students how to log on. Soon, all were surfing the net. Our new system was a success, or so I thought.

Within minutes, and despite my warnings, two students found their way into a chat room and engaged in an inappropriate conversation. I couldn’t believe it: Even with adult supervision, the students brazenly ignored my instructions and plunged right into unacceptable activities. I was shocked, and at the time, using an Internet filter to limit student access had not yet occurred to me.

Although the benefits of technology are obvious, the dangers can be subtler. The perversion of a medium that has such great potential for good is undoubtedly one of the tragedies of our day. Too often, as parents, we are aware of the potential dangers of using these new tools, but we don’t understand enough about them to know how to protect our families. Nor do we know what danger signs to look for. Furthermore, many children possess a greater understanding of technology than we do.

So what do we look for? How do we protect ourselves? How do we, as loving parents but novice users, fight back against the flood of filth being produced by companies with seemingly endless resources and world-class technological talent?

Internet filters are designed to block access to predefined types of online materials. Some Internet filters work by using keywords to block access to sites; some block by assigning sites to categories that can then be blocked as groups; and some block based on Web site names. No filter is going to be 100 percent effective at blocking everything. The best method for filtering Internet content is parental supervision.

When buying a filter, look for three features:

  • Anti-tampering, which prevents the filter from being disabled and users from covering their tracks by altering history or log files;
  • The ability to block access to inappropriate Web sites not just by site name but by domain and Internet Protocol address, which prevents access to an entire Web site; and
  • The ability to restrict access by setting the days and times that you will allow access to the Internet.

Still, be aware that there are portals on the Internet that bypass filtering software. If you use filtering software, check the usage logs daily.

Protect Your Kids

Finally, here are two simple suggestions that you can follow to properly monitor your own family’s access to the Internet:

  • Search your computer regularly for the word “cookies.” Cookies are files downloaded to your computer that tell you what sites have been visited on your machine.
  • Check by date to determine what new files have been created on your computer for inappropriate content.

Even if you take the proper precautions, don’t assume that other parents — or teachers — will do the same. Know where your children are and what is available to them there.

James Banks is executive director of technology for Barbers Hill Independent School District near Houston. He has served for 23 years in public education, as a middle school and high school computer teacher and as a technology administrator.