My nine-year-old daughter knows how to use Google. And as someone who just accidentally landed on a porn site after typing what he thought was the URL for a sporting-goods store, I realize it's time to take steps--beyond what I've already taken to make e-mail safe for my kids.
The Quintura Search Engine
Because I can't monitor my kids' computer activity every second of the day, I'm starting by replacing Google with Quintura. This kid-friendly search engine lets you type in a query and/or click your way through a word cloud and get G-rated results in return.
Type in "ferrets," for instance, and related topics (such as "animals" and "pet care") appear in a cloud surrounding the original search term. Click any of those results to narrow the search, and on and on as desired. Meanwhile, the actual filtered-for-kids search results appear in the bottom half of the site, ready for clicking.
It's no Google, but it does make me feel better about unsupervised Web searches.
The KIDO'Z Browser
The Web browser is not only a potentially confusing environment for kids, but also an unintentional (for them, anyway) gateway to the Internet's seamy underbelly.
For most kids under the age of 10, the main attractions of a computer are games, videos, and Web sites. (PBSKids.org is particularly popular destination around these parts.) KIDO'Z is a specialized browser that serves up exactly those items, all within a safe, colorful, kid-friendly interface.
KIDO'Z requires Adobe Air. With that in place, it takes just a few clicks to install Kido'Z and set up a free account, which requires little more than a username and password.
The interface resembles a TV, with colorful icons for switching between the Games, Websites, and Video "channels." Within each channel: pages and pages of preselected content, with each item represented by a colorful, recognizable thumbnail (Dora, Curious George, etc.).
There's also a Favorites button so your kids can easily return to their preferred games and videos without having to search through all the pages again.
KIDO'Z has a password-protected Parental Controls page where you can manage content, adding new videos and Web sites or blocking material you may find inappropriate.
In short, KIDO'Z is a slick, well-designed app that's perfect for parents who want to let young kids have a little fun online, but who don't want to worry about inappropriate content. Though it's designed for ages 3-7, I think 8- and 9-year-olds would enjoy KIDO'Z as well.
Another kid-safe browser option is KidZui, which doesn't require Adobe Air.
The OpenDNS Alternative
Now it's time to bring out the big gun: OpenDNS. It's a server-level filter that promises to protect your kids from online violence, pornography, phishing, and more.
And it works. To use OpenDNS, you simply make a few small tweaks to your home network router. Don't have one? You can make the necessary adjustments right on your PC. In both cases, the result is one small but significant behind-the-scenes change: Your Internet access gets routed through OpenDNS' servers rather than your ISP's.
What makes OpenDNS servers so great? Simple: It blocks inappropriate and malicious sites. You don't have to install or program any software or set any permissions; OpenDNS does the heavy lifting. You can, however, choose one of five filtering levels, the highest of which blocks everything from adult-related sites to video-sharing sites to "general time-wasters." (They should call that one, "This PC is for Homework Only.")
There's also a Custom option that lets you choose from dozens of filtering categories. That's handy if you're okay with, say, Business Services and Politics, but want to block stuff like Alcohol, Gambling, and Weapons.
Amazingly, OpenDNS is free. I'd go so far as to say it's the single best solution for parents seeking to protect their kids from inappropriate Web content. (It's also a pretty killer solution for small businesses, according to Net Work blogger David Strom.) I highly recommend it for households with toddlers, tweens, and teens alike.