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Monday, November 30, 2009

A Great Book

I often refer to this book in my presentations:

It's a great guide for parents and teachers who feel overwhelmed by the online world.  It doesn't offer any great strategies or best practices for keeping your kids safe (as the title implies), but what it does is help you get up to speed with the terminology and concepts that are at the core of the Internet.  It is a great starting place and a great reference guide for parents and educators who are trying to keep up with their kids.  You can find it at Amazon at

Monday, November 23, 2009

Did You Know Your Kid's Video Games can Access the Internet?

Responsible parents...doing their part to keep their kids safe online.  They've installed monitoring and filtering software on their computer, they utilize parental controls, the keep the computers in common areas in the house.  They've done their homework and put their time in.  And yet, their 14 year old son has a massive collection of pornography and access to extremely objectionable websites at will.  How is this possible? Surely this boy is accessing this content outside the home since the parents have locked everything down.  Nope.  This boy is building his collection via a source parents usually overlook - his video game console.

Wait a minute...I'm a responsible parent....I insist that no hard core games come into my house...I rely on the video game rating system (ESRB).  Good for you...keep it up.  Only I'm not talking about video games.  I'm talking about Internet access.

Think about the typical video game console scenario.  You don't want all of that junk (15 different types of controllers, video game boxes, etc.) messing up the TV in your family room, so what do you do?  You put the video game console on the TV in the basement or their bedroom.  Video game consoles today are nothing more than specialized personal computers.  There really isn't much difference between your family PC and that XBox connected to your television.  They both have monitors, they both have hard drives and RAM, and YES, they both have Internet access.  Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft XBox all have browsers that allow your children to connect to the Internet.  And since they all have hard drives and other storage media, they have a place to save anything your kids find online.  To make it worse, even though these machines are essentially home computers, they do not run typical operating systems and therefore, parents can't install typical filtering software on them.  These units provide the user fairly unlimited access to the internet.  That means chat rooms, pornography, hate propaganda websites, you name it.

So what can you do as parents?  Well, you could just unhook the device from the Internet.  However, most kids today are playing games that are multiplayer online games that require internet connection to play.  If you disconnect the Internet, you might as well not have spent the $300 for the unit in the first place.  You could also disallow video game consoles altogether from your home.  But let's be reasonable.  We can't let our fear of bad stuff online cloud our overall vision.  There is nothing wrong with a kid having a video game console - it's a great source of entertainment that doesn't involve drugs or alcohol (there are worse things).  So what can you do?  Be smart.  If the computer isn't allowed in a private area, then a video game console shouldn't be either.  Get smart.  Learn how to get into the video game console and look around at saved files and browsing history.  The good thing about the lack of traditional operating system architecture is that it's nearly impossible to hide files from view - if they are on the machine, you'll probably come across them.  Look for the signs - if your kid turns the unit off every time you walk in the room, something is up.  You should also watch for kids using removable media with game consoles (memory cards and USB drives) and ask your kids to open that media occasionally in your presence if they are using it.

Like everything else that is connected online, you have to put the time in to monitor it.  Create some rules and acceptable use policies for your home and ENFORCE them (a rule isn't a rule unless you enforce it right?).  If you catch them with bad stuff on the video game console, it's gone, and they can't ever have another while they live under your roof.  Zero tolerance.  Yes, they can get it somewhere else...but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do the right thing and send the right message.

Fortunately right now, handheld video games like Gameboy, PSP, Nintendo DS, etc. have limited Internet access (if it does have access it's only to connect you to other players, there is no browsing available)...for now.  But it's coming there too.  The I-Pod Touch is rapidly becoming a popular handheld gaming device and guess what, it has a browser and Internet access.  It's just a matter of time and they will all be connected.

Don't be paranoid...don't go on a witch hunt, but don't be an ignoramus either.  You are smart enough to have a career, manage a household and all of your finances, you can probably figure out a video game console.  Put the time in and get online with your kids.  When they were little, you took them to the park and watched them play to keep them safe.  Think of the Internet as a virtual park.  They need you to watch them play there as well.

Accidental Access

Here is an older article that I read when it first came out two years ago.  The message is still good.  It talks about bad stuff appearing on a computer without anyone even trying to get it.  As this poor teacher discovered, an innocent click on a website link opened up what the online community refers to as a "porn storm," an endless barrage of pornography pop-up windows that can't be stopped without shutting the machine down.  Within 5 seconds, over 100 windows with pornography could be opened automatically.  Scary.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Mind of a Sexual Predator

A friend of mine is a post-doctoral student in child psychology at Indiana University.  Knowing that I regularly speak about online safety for children, she sent me an excerpt from a study of convicted online sexual predators that she and a team of researchers were working on. The study itself was horrifying, but what struck me as particularly disturbing was the transcript of an actual chat room conversation between a sexual predator and his 14 year old female prey.

Here's some background.  The chatroom in question was one of the more popular teem chatrooms online.  To avoid lawsuits, I'll omit the name of the site (not that it matters - it could have happened at any of them).  As I said, the potential victim was a 14 year old girl - good student, active in school, soccer player, very popular.  The predator was a 37 year old male, recently unemployed from a snack vending company, posing as a 15 year old boy.

The conversation I am going to show you was originally comprised largely of textspeak - the online shorthand kids use to text and chat online.  It has been translated to standard English so you don't have to spend time looking things up.  What is also included in the transcript of the conversation are notes about the tactics that the predator admitted to using at various points in the conversation.  The lines written by the child are denoted with a letter C and the lines written by the predator with a letter P.  Ingenious and chilling at the same time.  I will reveal the outcome of this situation after the transcript.

[the predator admitted spending 3 days monitoring a particular chatroom to get a feel for the conversations and the topics kids were discussing.  During that time he had two browser windows with the chatroom and one with Google where he would research the topics the kids brought up so he could sound like he knew what he was talking about]

C:  ...Kevin Jonas is the hottest
P: Oh my god he is gay!
C: He is not.  How can you say that?  He has a girlfriend.
P: So.  Still gay
C: You would know.  Are you gay too?
P: No.  I just think he acts gay.

[predator did a search on Yahoo Answers to find out who the most popular bands with teens are.]

P: Panic At the Disco is way better
C: Oh my god, I love them.

[predator does a search to find out the most recent time they performed]

P: I got to see them at the Hard Rock in Vegas
C: Shut up. You did not
P: Did too.  Went with parents in July and we stayed at Hard Rock.
C: Were they awesome?
P: Unbelievable

[predator downloads a video clip of the show from the internet and forwards it as a video message to his cell phone]

P: I recorded part of it on my phone
C: You can get busted for that
P: They didn't catch me.  I'm sly :-o
P:  It's even awesome on my ghetto video
C: I want to see it
P: I'll send it to you.  What's your number?
C:  I'm not giving you my number.  You might be a stalker ;-)
P: I'm just going to send you the video. Besides, you will know my number and then you never have to answer if I call.
C: True.  It's xxx-xxx-xxxx

[Predator looks up the area code online.  Then predator sends the video clip]

P: Did you get it?
C: Yes
P: You're from St. Louis?  Oh my god I was just there visiting my uncle.
C: Really, where?

[predator uses Google maps to find a neighborhood in the suburbs of St. Louis]

P: Webster Groves
C: Oh my god that's like two minutes from me
P: Where do you live?
C: Kirkwood

[predator Googles the schools in Kirkwood]

P:  Do you go to xxx high school?
C: Yes, how did you know?

At this point the child had to leave the chatroom to go to soccer practice.  On the way to practice she started talking to her mother about the conversation.  Her mother immediately became concerned and contacted the police.  With the girls cooperation, the police went back to the chatroom and posed as her.  The predator monitored the chatroom continuously until he saw her ID return and instantly engaged.  After another hour of conversation, the predator had arranged a meeting with the child (actually the police) and one week later was apprehended by police while trying to meet with the 14 year old girl.

The scariest part about this...I can see how almost any child might be tricked into revealing personal information like this child did.  Talk to your kids!

Review of Parental Control Software

If you are thinking of buying parental control software for your computer, you may find this website to be useful.

It compares the top 10 software products available and gives you a side by side comparison of the features.

When considering parental control software, you should realize that they can fall under three catagories:

1. Monitoring software:  This is software that simply monitors the websites visited on your computer as well as e-mails being sent and received.  Monitoring software does not filter objectionable content.  If monitoring software is all you need, check out the link to GoMcGruff in my links area on the right side of this blog.  GoMcGruff is free and works well.

2. Filtering software:  This is software that actually filters out websites that are tagged as "adult" or "offensive" or websites that parents choose to block.  Some filtering software can even filter e-mail messages.

3. Usage software:  This is software that allows you to control who uses the computer at certain times.  So if you don't want your kids online while you are at work and unable to monitor them, you can keep them off.

Many of the leading parental control packages do all three of the above (and more).  Just be sure you know what they do before you buy anything.  Also, you may want to check my posting about the parental controls built into Windows as that might be a free solution for you.

The last piece of advice for you is this.  If you are looking for something that you can install and walk away from and have it take care of all of your parental control needs, there is no such product.  These are tools that help parents perform a task, not perform it for them.  You can't lay a hammer and chisel on a pile of wood and say "make me a cabinet."  You also can't expect parental control software to do all the work.  Your time as parents is REQUIRED. 

Teens and Twitter

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker this morning.  He was talking about Twitter and how he and his wife love it - not that they "Tweet" (that's what it's called when you post a message on Twitter) but because they use it to keep tabs on their teenage daughter.

Let me explain how Twitter works.  Let's say I have a Twitter account.  I can post messages or even pictures on my Twitter page from a computer or from my cell phone (via texting) at any time.  My page then has "followers," people who sign up to view my page and are notified whenever I post a new "Tweet."  Whatever I post, they see.  It's like a virtual bulletin board that I can update from anywhere.  There are no age restrictions on Twitter - anyone can start a page. Personally, I think it's a colossal waste of time - who cares if I'm getting ready to leave for work or I just watched a movie that I liked?  Are we so bored as a society that we need to focus in on the most mundane details of other people's lives? But the 12 - 30 crowd loves it.  Go figure.

Back to my co-worker and his teenage daughter.  I asked him exactly how he and his wife use Twitter to keep track of their daughter.  He said that they have a computer in the kitchen and they keep their daughter's Twitter page open all of the time.  She is apparently addicted to Twitter and Tweets every time she does anything.  They get messages like "leaving volleyball practice" and "heading to Shannon's house."  By monitoring the page, they know exactly where she is and what she's doing.  I asked him if they thought she'd ever lie about her whereabouts and they explained that she has a bunch of friends who follow the site too and she wants them to know what she's doing (so why would she lie?).  Plus they trust their daughter and feel they raised her right and know she's responsible. Essentially, they have a website that reports their daughter's whereabouts all of the time. AND, there is an added bonus...since her friends all know where she is, no one is calling the house looking for her. Sounds good right?

I continued asking my co-worker questions hoping he would come to the scary realization I was already considering.  The first question I asked was "is your daughter's Twitter account set to private or not?"  Setting a Twitter account to private means that only approved people can view it.  By default, they are not set to private, you have to go into the settings and make it that way.  His answer to my question...."I don't know."  If the account is not set to private, anyone in the world can follow it, which means anyone in the world will know exactly where his daughter is at any time.  And because she regularly posts pictures of herself, anyone would know what she looks like.  Talk about a goldmine for a sexual predator.  I explained that to him and he said "I guess we better make sure her account is set to private."  I guess. 

Even with the account set to private, there is still a danger.  Teenagers don't always use common sense.  Many times they will approve anyone who wants to be a friend.  Studies show that the 16 - 25 crowd views the number of friends or followers they have on sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter as a status symbol.  The more friends the better.  Kids will often eagerly friend someone they don't know, just to up their numbers.

Private or not, Tweeting your location and pictures of yourself at frequent intervals is a very bad idea for kids.  If your kids MUST use Twitter, set some rules: First, you have to be a follower of their page (make them show you how to get onto it if need be).  Second, no Tweets that would let someone know where to find them.  Third, no pictures of themselves or their friends (anyone who is a minor).  Fourth, you have to know who their followers are at all times.  If they don't like your rules, then take the phone away.  

Twitter, like so many other things in our online world can be fun and useful but the flipside can be very dangerous.  Kids should not be left to make important decisions about their safety and well being alone.  Be a parent.  Know what they are doing and enforce some rules.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Do Kids Really Need the Internet On Their Mobile Phones?

I field a good number of questions from parents and teachers as a result of my presentations.  Sometimes they are from parents who come up at the the end of my presentations and sometimes they come in e-mails days later.  I recently got this question from a parent:

"What is available to filter Internet sites that my kids go to on their mobile phones?" 

First of all, YES, there is porn and other bad stuff on the mobile phone Internet.  Here is a good article from ABC News about it:  Now, let me give you a little technical background.  The Internet that people get to from cell phones is not necessarily the same Internet that you access from your computers.  There is an entirely separate Internet for mobile devices where companies like Yahoo and Google make sites that look very much like their regular Internet sites but are designed for small screens (however, some of the new mobile devices can actually connect to the regular Internet or the WAP (Wireless Access Protocol - the technical name for the mobile device Internet)).  The growing concern is that the mobile device Internet has few mechanisms for filtering out objectionable content.

So back to the question I got from a parent...what should this person do to keep their kids safe while accessing the Internet from their mobile phones?  My answer to this parent was actually another question (much to her dismay): "Why do your kids need the Internet on their mobile phones?"  Kids have access to the Internet at home, at school, at their friend's houses, at the library, and even many restaurants and coffee shops, do they really need it from their phones too?  It's not like they are climbing the corporate ladder and need to remain in touch with key clients.  They're kids for Pete's sake.  They need to be able to communicate with their parents and their friends and that's it.

It turns out that this poor woman had been "snowed" by her kids.  They led her to believe you couldn't do texting on your phone without Internet.  UNTRUE!  You can't do e-mail on your mobile phone without Internet access but you can certainly make calls and text people all you want.  

She was a little surprised and angry that her kids lied to her.  I was a little surprised that she didn't just ask the person at the Verizon store about it (you have to stay informed as parents).  Save yourself the $30+ a month.  If your kids must have a mobile phone, settle for a plan that allows calling and texting and nothing more.  Leave the Internet on the computer.

Just my 2 cents.

NetSmartz - A Great Resource for Technology Teachers

When I give my presentation to schools, I am often asked by tech teachers if there are any good resources that are geared toward kids for teaching internet safety and appropriate use.  NetSmartz is an awesome site with a good deal of just that type of content.  Most of it is free for teachers and the content they offer is pretty comprehensive (presentations, teacher notes, other resources, etc.).  I have downloaded much of it and gone through it and it's pretty good stuff.  The address is  The site is very easy to navigate.  If/when you go there, don't overlook the drop-down in the top right corner.  It's a quick, easy way to find stuff you would otherwise have to dig for.

Parental Controls Built Into Windows

I've been asked many times about parental controls that are part of the Windows operating system. 

Windows XP:  There are some parental controls built into Windows XP but they are limited.  There is some website filtering and program control but it is by no means fool proof.  Here is a link to a decent overview of parental controls in Windows XP:

Windows Vista:  Though I HATE Vista, Microsoft did improve the parental controls included in the operating system.  The parental controls built into Windows Vista help parents determine which games their children can play, which programs they can use, and which websites they can visit—and when. One of the coolest features is the ability to restrict computer use, by user, to certain times of day.  So if you don't want your kids online while you are away at work or after 9pm, you could enforce such rules.  Here is a link to  an overview of parental controls in Windows Vista:

Windows 7: I just upgraded to Windows 7 and am really liking it so far. The parental controls in Windows 7 are pretty similar to Vista with a few improvements. Here is a link to  an overview of parental controls in Windows 7.  When you go to the page, the real "meat" of the overview is in a 38 minute video in the top left portion of the screen:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Handouts from the Presentation

Here are the links to the handouts from the presentation.  I'm using Google Docs to share these documents so you will need to have or create a Google account in order to download them.  If you have G-Mail, then you already have a Google account (log into it as you would log into your e-mail).  If you don't have a Google account, it takes very little time to set one up.

Link #1 is the comprehensive document that includes my actual presentation as well as all of the other handout documents combined into one file (in other words, link #1 contains all of the documents found in links 2 - 12 as well):

Link #2 is for just my presentation:

Link #3 is instructions for setting search engine filters in Google:

Link #4 is instructions for setting search engine filters in Yahoo:

Link # 5 is instructions for setting search engine filters in Bing:

Link #6 is a parent's overview of YouTube and video networking (from

Link #7 is a list of social networking tips for parents (from

Link #8 is an article about social networking and kids from

Link #9 is a current list of existing social media sties from

Link #10 is an overview of Twitter for parents:

Link # 11 is a list of helpful links for parents, teachers, and administrators interested in online safety for kids:

Link #12 is an article from about parenting online:

Blog Launch!!

I thought I'd give this a try.  As a result of some great feedback from the parents of St. Dominic's School in Delhi (thanks so much to Bill Cavanaugh and the PTO for having me), I decided to create this blog as a vehicle for posting useful information and links that parents can use as resources to keep their kids safe online.  

I am very open to feedback as to how I can make this blog better so please feel free to comment at any time.