While fixing a co-worker’s home computer, a dilemma that presented itself was whether to use parental controls that AOL offers. At first I used the “Young Teen” setting for her younger son and “Mature Teen” for her son in 11th grade. Both settings are supposed to restrict access to some websites. What I found out was that all or nearly all sites were being blocked, even for the Mature Teen. As a compromise, I gave him full web access but enabled AOL Guardian which logs the sites he visits and sends a report to his mother. Though the whole family uses the computer, it is located in his room and he is often home by himself. Parental controls at AOL also allow her to restrict the amount of time per day (one hour is the lowest; I remember when AOL restricted you to 10 hours per month) as well as the time of day he is allowed to log on. I didn’t activate those.
I wanted to find out more about the AOL Guardian service and whether it would track usage through a browser other than AOL’s built-in browser. I’m still not sure, but apparently it does. Essentially AOL is a web proxy and you tell it what sites you want to get and it gets them for you. You’re not dealing directly with a site. So no matter what browser you use, AOL can log the sites. Guardian does not read e-mails, record chats, or tell you the path of all sites (It would just say you visited mac.fiveforks.com, not which blogs you read). It sends a report every time he logs on and it tells him when Guardian is turned on and when it is turned off by his mother.
While looking for information I found an interesting discussion. Kids almost universally feel Guardian means their parents don’t trust them. Parents are mixed. Some middle ground people say if a kid feels that strongly about it, he should discuss it with his parents and try to convince them to turn it off, but not try to circumvent it.
It raises privacy and parenting issues. Parents are accused of letting a computer program do their job as parents. If a parent can’t trust their children then they must be bad parents. Why don’t parents just ask their kids what sites they are visiting? Parents are spying on their children. Kids above 13 or 15 or 17 (depending on which kid says it) should be allowed full access to the internet and let them decide for themselves what is appropriate.
On the other hand, kids just have to live with their parent’s rules. If kids aren’t paying for AOL they shouldn’t be able to say how it is used. It’s not a privacy issue, but a safety issue to keep the kids away from bad influences. If a kid isn’t hiding anything, why would he care if his parents know what websites he visits? One suggestion was to always have the computer in the family room but leave the controls off. One person actually said parents should always be with their kids when they are on the internet. I’m sure Jenny will eventually be pressured into disabling AOL Guardian by her son, but she liked the idea even though she would probably never even log on to read the reports in the first place.
One problem is that the kids are almost always more computer savvy than their parents. So parents are at a loss on how to monitor computer usage. Jenny had rarely visited the parental controls section and never uses AOL anyway, but she has paid for it for five years. And there are ways to get around the parental controls by using a keylogger to hack the parents’ password (though Jenny could log on from another computer or have me log on from my house to set the password which a keylogger couldn’t detect).
I don’t have children so I don’t have to worry about it and don’t feel like I should weigh in other than to advise Jenny on what is possible. She’s pretty trustful actually and even let her son set up an iTunes account so he could buy music with her credit card, which I’m not sure I would have done (I think you can also give iTunes gift certificates and avoid the possibility of a hundred songs being unexpectedly downloaded with your credit card). As it turns out, later that day she had forgotten her new password that I gave her so she had her son reset it for her. I don’t doubt that AOL Guardian isn’t turned on anymore.