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Use External Filters And Teach Internal Filters

One summer day I was sitting on the back porch with my then toddler son. He was standing next to a large empty hammock and was pushing it back and forth. The momentum was increasing and I was worried that it would eventually come back too fast and knock him over. I said to him, “be careful sweetie.” He continued to push the hammock. I said to him again with more concern, “be careful!” He looked at me with a puzzled face and asked, “What is careful?”

I realized that I had not made it clear what I really wanted. I had not talked to him about what was worrying me. My saying, “be careful” meant nothing to him. I think about this a lot when I find myself speaking in generalities and admonishing my kids to “be careful” online, or “be good.” Being specific is an essential part of teaching children how to analyze a situation and make a decision on what they should do about it. We need to teach them what it means to be careful, good, or bad. 

The ultimate goal is to teach our children how to filter the Internet on their own, without relying on external tools. However, this cannot be learned overnight. It takes years of experience and brain development to get the point where an adult can (most of the time) know what to do. This is why we use some external filtering to help children along as they get this whole decision-making skill worked out. We make them hold our hands in the parking lot as preschoolers. We put fences around pools to keep them from falling in before they know how to swim. We require teens to complete driver training before giving them a driver’s license.

The internet also has dangers, so we find external filters can be very helpful. They protect our family from getting bombarded with images and ideas to process. They make it easier as we go about teaching how to be careful online.

In another article, DealingWith Devices, I wrote about how our family handles cell phones and hand-held devices. I briefly mentioned some filters that we use and shared the contract we had our kids sign after going over the family electronic rules.

I have since had people ask me more about filtering. Many among my friends and family have children younger than mine that are just heading into the tween/teen phase. This is an important age to get serious about your family internet filters if you haven’t already. I believe that as soon as children are using your devices you should be adding passwords and/or filters. It is so easy to come across filth even when a toddler randomly clicks and types into a browser or when a child looking for something innocent misspells a word in a search.

Our favorite filter for our home is OpenDNS parental controls. We like it because it filters the Internet at the router (the device that brings internet into our home). This means that anything that connects to our router either directly or through Wi-Fi is filtered. In this way, the filter takes effect on all our phones, computers, tablets, and game consoles without us having to install anything on any of those devices. Anyone else using our Wi-Fi is automatically filtered as well, so family and friends visiting us are also held to our standards while in our home.

Parents can login any time to adjust controls if they find websites getting blocked too much or not enough. The system breaks things down into categories and we can go down the list and turn things on and off to reflect our family’s values. We can also view a history of websites visited and scan for inappropriate sites that may have slipped past the filter. OpenDNS is free with optional upgrades available.

One limitation that OpenDNS has is that it can only block or allow entire websites rather than just objectionable portions of those websites. For example, OpenDNS can either completely block or allow, but it can’t block only certain youtube videos and allow others. To get this level of filtering requires a program that you would need to install on the device.

A filtering program we use that provides this more sophisticated level of filtering is K9 Web Protection. It does a very good job of categorizing and filtering specific web content and is also free. The program allows you to set up allowed and blocked categories and types of content, make changes as needed, or temporarily unblock a page or website if necessary.

Some may feel that a general filter is too much because it also filters the internet for the adults who, theoretically, have an internal filter and a different standard of what is appropriate compared to the children. I agree that there are different levels of tolerance for different stages of life. However, I do believe that setting a standard for the family is essential. It makes it clear what our family values are and if a parent needs to deal with the annoyance of overriding blocks once in a while, for example when shopping for swimwear, it’s worth it.

No filter is perfect, so it is also crucial to have a family discussion about what is appropriate to look at online. There is a book we like and are reading now with our children (even the teenagers) called Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids. It introduces the difference between good and bad pictures, how our brains work, why our body responds to certain images, why looking at images can become addicting, and how to handle it when we come across images that are bad for us--because we all will.

It’s really never too early to have this discussion. Many elementary children bring devices to school, sports practices, or after-school lessons that have internet access. With those devices, they can pull up things online right then to show other kids, or pull up images they have saved onto the device. Relying solely on filters to protect your children is not the answer. The best thing is to use these filters with a heavy dose of conversation.

Talking about things that your kids see and hear, listening to their experiences, and not freaking out about things that surprise you are all an essential part to building the internal filters that our kids will need as adults. Before you freak out remember that they need to trust that you are on their side. If you want to know what’s really going on with them you need to control yourself in your conversations with them and discuss why things are upsetting to you. Chastising them for being bad will not help your children without the context of what is good. The best any of us can do for them is to talk to them and teach them about why we have the standards we do. They need to know what is right for them before they can understand what is wrong.

We should all embrace a discussion of experiences and ideas, block what we can of the bad, and emphasize the happiness they will find with the good.

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