A closer watch over kids online
Windows Vista offers tools to help parents manage kids' computer use and confront growing online risks. Microsoft execs, including Bill Gates, are marketing the features with stories from their own families.
Seattle Times technology reporter
Any parent listening to a panel of Internet safety experts at a security conference in San Francisco earlier this month might have been tempted to yank that high-speed Internet connection out of the wall for good:
• "We frequently see girls who are honor students and straight up in their real lives ... have a different persona online," said Sharon Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician. "This makes them at risk for exploitation on the Internet."
• "[T]here is no question that there are predators online who are studying children and children's habits and understanding them with the purpose of hunting them, basically," said Andrew Oosterbaan, chief of the U.S. Department of Justice's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.
• "I was able to make, after going through about a third of the data, 744 definite matches of registered sex offenders who had MySpace profiles ... in their own name and their own ZIP code," said Kevin Poulsen, senior editor at Wired News, who last year cross-referenced a national sex-offender registry with the profiles on the popular social-networking service.
Despite the consistent parade of statistics and chilling tales of online risk, more people are logging on than logging off.
In its biggest effort yet to help parents monitor and control what their kids do with their PCs, Microsoft introduced a suite of tools in the Windows Vista operating system it released to the mass market at the end of January.
Online-safety experts are praising the parental controls as a good first step, but they say there's still a long way to go and parents need to do more to protect their kids.
Microsoft felt strongly enough about the parental controls that it took an unusual approach in marketing the features during the introduction of Windows Vista.
Chairman Bill Gates is usually protective of his family's privacy. But in an interview with NBC's "Today" show Jan. 29, the day before Vista's release, he described how he's using the parental controls.
"Our family just got to the point where our 7- and 10-year-old are just using the screen so much that we've had to set a limit," said Gates, who made similar comments in interviews throughout the day. "... And so in Vista, I can say the times that my son can get on. For my daughter, she's a bit older and in that case I'll be more flexible, but I can see the activity report, I can go and look at what Web sites she's been going to, I can decide what range of games she can use."
Michael Sievert, corporate vice president for Windows marketing, gave a detailed demonstration at the Vista launch party that same day, focusing on how his family uses the operating system and highlighting the parental controls.
Sievert, a veteran marketing executive who has held positions at AT&T Wireless, E*trade Financial and IBM, said this was the first time he'd talked publicly about his own experience with a product as part of a marketing strategy.
"I personally don't see this approach a lot, and I think in our case it was more circumstantial," he said in a recent interview. He added that "executives at Microsoft are pretty passionate about our products, so when we were looking at ways to talk about what the products do, looking at our own experiences is one of the best ways to convey it."
He said Microsoft is aiming to market the parental controls in light of two ongoing trends, quantified by Forrester Research: Broadband Internet access in the home has grown dramatically over the past few years, now reaching roughly half of all U.S. households. And about 40 percent of U.S. households have more than one computer.
"So now parents are looking at a situation where their children have access to broadband, and the PC is not always in a public space," Sievert said. "It may be in the child's bedroom or in a different part of the house, and so parental control certainly has become a more important issue."
The controls in Vista let parents limit hours of use and access to specific Web sites and games with various filters for content such as profanity, violence and nudity. Activity reports log e-mail and instant-messaging exchanges, file downloads, Web sites viewed and sites that were blocked.
Only the "first steps"
Linda Criddle, an online child-safety expert who left Microsoft last fall after 13 years, said these tools represent "good, rudimentary first steps." Companies are just now awakening to the idea that online safety should be built in from the outset, she said.
"So much more can be done, and at this point everyone is failing on this," said Criddle, who wrote "Look Both Ways: Help Protect Your Family on the Internet," published in December by Microsoft Press.
Specifically, she said parental controls need to be more flexible to accommodate changing schedules and the array of activities kids pursue with computers. For example, the Vista feature that lets parents select the hours during which a child can use the computer should be able to block certain activities at certain times.
"It doesn't say [whether the child can] use the computer for school vs. playing 'World of Warcraft' or blogging or video chatting late at night with a stranger," Criddle said. "All it says is, 'Can or can't use.' It's a bludgeon tool where you need a very fine level of control."
Lack of flexibility
If a soccer practice runs late one night and a child needs to use the computer to finish a homework assignment, the parent would have to change the access setting for that night then remember to go in and restore the original setting.
"If a parent has to override it very many times, it will be turned off," she said.
Criddle said more needs to be done to stop kids from releasing potentially problematic information on the Web. For example, technology could require a parent's permission before a child could fill out an online form to download a free game from a dubious Web site.
"We're not helping people manage content," she said. "We're still in this dark ages of block and filter."
Need for involvement
Using the right technology is one piece of the puzzle. Online-safety experts suggest parents start by communicating openly with their kids about how they use the Internet.
"Parents should first of all be very involved with their children," said Cooper, the pediatrician.
She suggests parents occasionally sit down with their child to review the child's page on MySpace or other social-networking sites together. Explain why a given screen name or dialogue or photograph might be suggestive or dangerous, Cooper said.
"They should let them know that they are really concerned with their well-being and health, not that they're just trying to control them but they're trying to protect them," she said.
Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org