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What Parents Need to Know About Web Filtering and Parental Controls

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It’s easy to set up parental controls and filter the web. These features are built into everything from Windows to the iPad. But none of these filtering solutions is perfect.

Filters aren’t useless — for example, whitelists can be particularly effective at keeping very young children on a handful of safe websites. But, as kids grow up, filters become less effective.

Blacklists Aren’t Perfect

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We’ve covered a variety of ways to set up parental controls in the past. These solutions generally rely on “blacklisting,” blocking access to a list of specific websites. For example, you tell the filter that you want to block access to certain categories of offensive content, such as “pornography” and “racism.” The company in charge of maintaining the parental control software will develop their own lists of pornographic and racist websites, blocking access to them when you choose to filter them out.

We can already see the problem here — the web is massive, with hundreds of millions of active websites. It’s just not possible for any web-filtering company to categorize every website. The blacklist won’t function perfectly, and some bad content can make it through. Some good content may be blocked by mistake, too.

Some filtering solutions may also use keyword-based filtering techniques. For example, the parental control software might block web pages that contain words matching certain categories of content. This can also be a problem — for example, a breast cancer awareness site might be blocked because it contains the word “breast.”

Whitelists Are Too Limiting

Whitelisting works in the opposite way, only allowing access to a list of specific website. Rather than putting together an endless list of bad sites, you just have to put together a list of good sites. This makes whitelisting more foolproof.

This can work well for young children. For example, you might want to allow your kids to only access Disney.com and a small list of other kid-friendly sites. They won’t accidentally stumble off onto the larger, messier web.

Unfortunately, whitelisting can become problematic as kids grow up and need to do more with the web. If your kids need to do research for their homework, there’s a good chance they’ll end up limited by the whitelist and unable to access sites. Whitelisting will become too restrictive.

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There Are Ways Around Filters

Very young children can benefit from these types of filters, as they provide some protection against stumbling off onto the messier parts of the web. But, as kids grow up, filters will just become less effective.

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Let’s be honest. Teens are clever, and they’ll find ways around filters if they want to. If you’re using OpenDNS for filtering, for example, they could change their computer’s DNS server to bypass it. They could look for a proxy or VPN that isn’t blocked by the filter. They could boot off a Linux live CD to bypass filtering built into Windows. They could watch over your shoulder and figure out the PIN to disable Restrictions on the iPad. Or maybe that’ll just access content you don’t approve of on someone else’s device after they leave the house.

As kids grow up, you can’t shelter them from everything bad on the web, just as you can’t shelter them from the world at large.

So What Should You Do?

Should you use web filtering and parental controls? They can certainly be useful to protect young children using a laptop or tablet — but at what age should you stop? This is a tough question. It’s not really even a tech question — it’s more of a parenting question.

That’s probably the lesson here — this is a problem that you shouldn’t just try to solve with technology. Install restrictive parental control software without talking about what is and isn’t acceptable and you won’t accomplish much. They’ll eventually become adults, and should probably be prepared for the real world where there won’t always be restrictive web filters on the Internet connections they have access to.

A decade ago — before smartphones, tablets, and other devices become portals to the web all over our homes — one popular piece of the advice was to put the one computer in the house in a common, public place. The idea was that parents could take a more active role in what kids were doing and provide parental oversight rather than just software oversight. The precise advice may not apply today, but parental involvement is still important.

There’s no one clear answer here. Parental controls can be especially useful for younger children, but you can’t rely on them to shelter a teenager from the web at large.


As a tech site, we’re not the ones you should rely on for answers to the difficult parenting questions here. But technology alone can’t solve this problem — that’s the one thing we do know.

Image Credit: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 12/11/13

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