How Parental Controls Work

by | Oct 12, 2008 08:00 PM ET
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Get in touch with technology with Tech Stuff from howstuffworks.com.

Chris Pollette

Hello, everybody. Welcome to the podcast. My name is Chris Pollette. I'm an editor at How Stuff Works. And today, I have sitting next to me Jonathan Strickland, one of our writers.

Jonathan Strickland

.

Chris Pollette

I suppose I should remove the tape.

Jonathan Strickland

Yeah, well. I was gonna make a great Al sound, but I don't even actually have tape. That was radio magic.

Chris Pollette

Who?

Jonathan Strickland

Or podcast magic, if you will.

Chris Pollette

Oh, okay. Yes, podcast magic. Well, the reason Jonathan sounded muffled up front was because we're talking today about parental controls.

Jonathan Strickland

Yes.

Chris Pollette

Although, I'm not his parent.

Jonathan Strickland

No. No, no. Let's clear that up right away. No, he's not my long last father. My father is neither long nor lost.

Chris Pollette

He doesn't happen to wear a big black suit with a mask over his head and wield a light saber?

Jonathan Strickland

Not often.

Chris Pollette

Okay.

Jonathan Strickland

All right.

Chris Pollette

So anyway, parental controls are a subject of much debate simple because let's get down to the nitty gritty. It's a form of censorship.

Jonathan Strickland

Yes.

Chris Pollette

About which many people, including Jonathan and I'm probably not gonna sound like it, but I'm an anti-censorship person, but I also have two young daughters, one of which is too young to do any more than drool on the keyboard.

Jonathan Strickland

Right.

Chris Pollette

But recently, I have a kindergartner who's very computer savvy. I started thinking about that the other day, looked at the Mac OS, and there's a parental control suite built into the operating system.

Jonathan Strickland

Yes.

Chris Pollette

Just like there is for Microsoft Vista.

Jonathan Strickland

Um-hum.

Chris Pollette

These are really simple solutions. It says, "Turn off the computer at a certain time on school nights," or, "Only allow them to use the computer for," and then you get to set it to half an hour, whole hour, three hours, and you get to pick. Those kinds of things, really, okay, not censorship, but you do have some control over how much time your child spends using the computer, and they're built right into the operating systems, which seem pretty cool.

Now, they also go farther. You can allow them to block dirty words in the dictionary, websites that might be offensive. Of course, you're relying on somebody else who set those sites up to say, "Go ahead and subscribe to these conventions," so you're sort of trusting somebody else to block your websites for you. That's essentially how it works. I thought, "Well, I would like to limit my kids' time on the computer," so I set up a basic set of parental controls. So I'm, so far, pretty happy with it.

Jonathan Strickland

Cool, cool. Yeah, back when I was a kid, I was fortunate to be part of a household that had computers pretty early on, so even when I was I guess about maybe 12 or 13, we had a computer. This is kind of dating myself a little bit, but we had a - the first real computer, computer that we had - I'm not gonna count the Texas Instruments, and please don't send me mad e-mail about that - was the Apple 2E.

Chris Pollette

Ah, yes.

Jonathan Strickland

The Apple 2E. We had an Apple 2E. We had several games on it, which ostensibly were for me, but it was not unusual to find my father playing games and beating my high scores. But the real reason we got it was because my father writes novels. Our parental control system was Dad coming into the office and kicking me off the computer so that he could write the next chapter of his book, which was necessary in order to supplement his income and pay for my education and everything along those lines and those of my sister. He kind of had to.

So, that was the old style of parental control, where it was very much hands on. But yeah, today, when you've got kids who have their own computers now or their own phone lines, you've got a lot more technology available, and some it geared specifically towards children, you really have to take these other things into consideration. It's not like we could only afford one machine for the entire house now. The prices have dropped so much that it's not a luxury item anymore, not for a lot of families anyway. For some families, yes, it still is, but for many families, it's not unusual to find three or four computers in a household.

In that case, you can't really just pop your head in every five minutes and make sure that your kid's not jumping back online to check out the internet. It's not really practical. I can begrudgingly agree that these are a necessarily - I hesitate to use the word evil, but they are necessary in many cases. Yeah.

Chris Pollette

Well, see.

Jonathan Strickland

That actually hurt me a little bit.

Chris Pollette

Yeah, I'm sure it did. I'm sure it did. Of course, parental controls don't go only - they don't stop at the edge of your computer screen. There are also many other screens that you'll find parental controls on, like your TV.

Jonathan Strickland

Sure. Yeah, the V-Chip!

Chris Pollette

The V-Chip, which is built in actually to the TV itself, which is supposed to allow the rating system to sort of help you control what can and can't be seen.

Jonathan Strickland

Right.

Chris Pollette

But you'll also find it on a lot of set top boxes.

Jonathan Strickland

Sure.

Chris Pollette

Like if you're a cable or a satellite subscriber, you'll, in many cases, find that there's some way to knock out certain channels. Personally, I like doing that with the shopping channels.

Jonathan Strickland

Nice. So you've got to put a little password in there.

Chris Pollette

Because I don't really want to watch them.

Jonathan Strickland

Right, right. And really, technology has become so pervasive that it's - that's pretty much why you need these things. Let's go back to the computer one for a bit because I did write an article that dovetails into this conversation. It's not directly relevant, but tangentially I suppose, which was about internet censorship.

Chris Pollette

Oh, yes.

Jonathan Strickland

And one of the big problems that advocacy groups have with - the privacy advocacy gro

ups and free speech advocacy groups have with these kind of solutions is that they're not the most elegant or accurate ways to prevent people from seeing certain sites. A lot of them depend on blacklists, so in that case, like Chris was saying earlier, you're depending on someone else saying, "This site is inappropriate for people to look at work or for children to have access to." That's just a list of websites that someone else somewhere has determined are not appropriate for your or your kids to look at.

But in other cases, they use keyword blocking. It's kind of like a search engine. Search engines will often scour a website and categorize it by the keywords that are on there, so when you do a search for that keyword term, that's how they pop up. Well, the same sort of thing for these parental controls. They search for a database of keywords, and if those keywords show up - or phrases, in some cases - that site will automatically get blocked by the software. The problem is that it doesn't always block the appropriate sites. Sometimes, it blocks stuff that really you should have access to.

I have friends who work at the Center for Disease Control. Some of them work in realms which require them to do research on things like sexually transmitted diseases. But with certain software blocking applications on there, or website blocking applications, they can't go to the sites they need to go to to do research because these keywords are popping up, and the information's being blocked. There are times where this can really prevent you from even doing your job.

Chris Pollette

Right.

Jonathan Strickland

So, that's why I look at this as sort of a downside in many ways. Now, when you're talking about kids, it's a different matter altogether. But the problem is that these parental controls aren't being applied just by parents to kids. They're being applied by companies to employees or, in some cases, by governments to citizens.

Chris Pollette

True enough. There are instances even of ISPs, internet service providers, who are filtering content that comes into homes based on their content for - actually, I've heard of political content being censored.

Jonathan Strickland

Right.

Chris Pollette

And we're just talking about in the United States. Of course, there are other places, like China, who are famous for blocking large volumes of content on the internet.

Jonathan Strickland

Right, and Cuba, which has its own intranet, which acts like an internet, but is really all self contained. It doesn't really access anything to the outside, so it really insulates the citizens.

Chris Pollette

That's true. It's one of those things too that people try to use it for applications such as libraries, public libraries, where in this case, you'd want it to shut down at a certain point to log off all the computers in the library, but there is a big debate in many library circles over whether or not it is a good idea or a bad idea to allow censorship. Of course, you don't want - if your child is working on a term paper for a class, you don't want somebody surfing the internet for porn right next to them.

Jonathan Strickland

Right.

Chris Pollette

But at the same time, is it right? One of the central tenets to the American Library Association's code is that you're supposed to open these channels and fight censorship in all fronts. I know this because I'm pursuing my degree in Library and Information Sciences, so this is a topic we've talked about a lot lately. But it is one of those things where there are people fighting on both sides of it. They see a reason for it, as far as kids concerned, but as far as adults are concerned, do you apply the same rules and in what way? It's difficult.

Jonathan Strickland

Yeah, yeah. Do you put - do you have a separate section in the library? And if you do, does that - is that inappropriate in a way because it casts a certain light on the people who go in there?

Chris Pollette

One of the most popular ways of handling it is to notify the library customer that they are using a filtered internet connection and to offer an unfiltered internet connection to that person as an alternative. Its like, "Well, here it is." Of course, they also risk losing federal funding for these projects because that's part of the legislation.

Jonathan Strickland

And this is - it's just gonna get more complicated.

Chris Pollette

Sure.

Jonathan Strickland

It's not gonna get easy. There are no easy answers to this, and it's not gonna - no solution's gonna pop up in the next 30 seconds or something. The latest news I've heard about this is for airlines that are considering - they're starting to Wi-Fi enable - r

ight.

Chris Pollette

Oh, the in-flight internet?

Jonathan Strickland

Right. In-flight internet! They have Wi-Fi enabled in-flight services. So, you pay to have access to the internet, and you can surf the web on your laptop in flight for a fee. There are people - there are both customers, there are airline personnel like flight attendants and even pilots, who are all concerned about whether or not they should put in filters to block people from surfing for porn on an airplane flight.

Chris Pollette

Right.

Jonathan Strickland

That's definitely one of those situations where you're thinking, really, why would you want to? You're sitting next to perfect strangers. And I've heard arguments about this. I've heard arguments that say, "Well, why would you look on someone else's screen?" Well, it's in your field of vision. I don't know about you, but my vision does extend beyond directly straight in front of me.

Chris Pollette

Right.

Jonathan Strickland

And the way you sit in an airplane, let me - if you're in coach, your elbows are sticking in the ribs of the person next to you. There's not a whole lot of space there.

Chris Pollette

Well, if you think about it, one of the biggest arguments that I've heard for people who do not want airlines to allow cell phone use is they don't want to hear everybody else talking and having their personal phone conversations.

Jonathan Strickland

No, I don't want to hear that.

Chris Pollette

Well, why would you want to - I'll give that some credit. You're a captive audience. For your 4-hour flight, you have to sit next to this person on very close proximity. You don't to -

Jonathan Strickland

Yeah, if it's a full flight, you can't switch seats or anything like that.

Chris Pollette

Yeah, so I don't really want to watch somebody surf for porn sitting right next to them in coach for an entire flight.

Jonathan Strickland

I don't ever want to.

Chris Pollette

Well, no.

Jonathan Strickland

But no, particularly not when you're a captive audience strapped into a seat at 30,000 feet. That definitely does not appeal to me. I've heard suggestions, perhaps tongue in cheek, for solutions like having the curtained off area in the back of the plane, so you could just have the porn section. Do we really need to turn airplanes into that kind of environment? We used to have the smoking sections, which, depending on your point of view, were bad enough - from my own point of view, definitely bad enough.

Chris Pollette

Yeah.

Jonathan Strickland

So, I'm glad those are gone, but it's just such a can of worms. And even though I am vehemently anti-censorship, I guess it's one of those things where it's okay as long as it doesn't impact me. Because I can definitely say that if I were sitting next to someone and they were looking at inappropriate material, however you may define that, it would definitely make me uncomfortable. It just seems wildly inappropriate. You would hope people would use their individual judgment and come to the conclusion of, "Hey, this is something I should only look at in the privacy of my own home, bathroom, closet, whatever, and not on a 737 going on a transatlantic flight."

Chris Pollette

Yeah.

Jonathan Strickland

But you can't necessarily trust that people will do that, so that's where the can of worms comes in.

Chris Pollette

And that's what I think I'm gonna have to do eventually with my kids. They're, at least as far as I can tell, pretty smart kids, and they're gonna be able to get around a lot of

the parental controls I could set up for them. They'll find some way to do it because -

Jonathan Strickland

Kids are smart.

Chris Pollette

The kids are smart.

Jonathan Strickland

They soak up information so quickly. As fast as we can put up barriers, they're gonna know ways around them. It's both admirable and scary.

Chris Pollette

Yes, it is. I think you're right. I think what it comes down to is educating people and saying, "Look, this is isn't appropriate at this time. You don't want to do this in front of all these people. You don't to expose people to things that you wouldn't want to be exposed to, and here's why."

Jonathan Strickland

Right.

Chris Pollette

You have to get in there and explain what it is, what's going on and say, "You're gonna have to use your judgment."

Jonathan Strickland

Yeah, so we're getting back to the old parental control program.

Chris Pollette

Exactly.

Jonathan Strickland

It's interesting, right? You can't just solely depend upon technology. Although, technology can certainly help you out, you can't depend on that as the cure all solution. Yeah, and you've got to hope that we don't have too many Andy Kaufmann's out there because those are exactly the kind of people who would want to push your buttons and do what you're not supposed to do in public just to see how people react. There's always gonna be those people, but hopefully, they'll be in the minority.

Chris Pollette

Right.

Jonathan Strickland

Well, I guess that about wraps up this discussion. If you want to learn more, you can read all about internet censorship on howstuffworks.com right now, and we'll talk to you again soon.

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