A month or so ago my three boys and I went out for an afternoon of bowling with a friend of mine. My two youngest sons are still a bit young to fully control the bowling ball so I asked the staff to raise the bumpers on one of the lanes we were bowling on. You’ve no doubt seen the long rubber coated bars that lift out of the edge of the gutters and prevent the ball from dropping discouragingly into the gutters on either side. No parent wants to go bowling with their kids and see them get frustrated with throws that only result in gutter balls and so the bumpers are a huge blessing in that regard.
As parents of children growing up in the digital age my wife and I often wish that we could raise a set of digital bumpers on the internet alley. We want to both help our kids have fun and enjoy the good things about the internet as well as protect them from those things which will discourage and even harm them. After all, as parents, it’s our responsibility to both teach as well as protect and encourage our children. However, if you’re not a “geek” you can find it hard to figure out exactly how to make that happen. As a technologist by trade, I have a slight advantage over some people because I deal with technology for a living. So, I want to share with you a couple of very easy ways that you can setup some bumpers around the internet for your family. For the sake of this post I will assume that you are a novice in technology so I’ll start with a simplified bit of background to help you understand how the internet works so that you can then understand how these solutions work. I will not go in depth but just enough to help you wrap your head around it so that you will have enough information to work with.
A Little Bit of Background
Most people don’t give a second thought about how their web browser works when they browse to a web address like http://www.google.com. They just know that they hit enter and this little website pops up that they can search for all sorts of stuff. The cool thing is that that web address is just a memorable way of finding the actual address on the internet of the Google server that host the site. The address for Google, called an IP address, is actually: 22.214.171.124. In fact if you typed that set of numbers and dots into your web browser it would take you to the Google website just as well. Your computer uses those number to find the Google servers.
Let’s face it though, no body can remember the numbers of all the websites they want to visit. That’s exactly why the creators of the internet invented the idea of website “domains” like google.com. They created a system to convert friendly text names into those numbers called the Domain Name Service(DNS). This service maps the name (Google.com) to the numeric value(126.96.36.199) so that your computer can find the website for you and you only have to remember the name. Now, your internet provider has a set of servers that help your computer to find the numbers through the modem and/or wireless router that you have in your home. So your computer asks your wireless router what the numeric address is for google.com. It then asks the DNS servers from your internet service provider what the numeric address is for Google.com and those server reply with “188.8.131.52”. Your computer then uses that address to get the webpage from Google. So, here’s the cool thing. You can tell your router to use a whole different set of Domain Name Servers when getting the numeric address of a website. And that is the key to the first set of bumpers you can put up around the internet!
The first solution is to use a Domain Name Server service that filters out inappropriate websites. One company that provides this type of service is OpenDNS. They provide both free as well as paid services to filter out adult content. The way it works is like this. You configure your router to ask the OpenDNS servers to get the numeric address for websites instead of your normal internet service provider. So, when you type a web address into your browser your computer asks your router which then asks the OpenDNS server for the number for site xyz.com. Well, lets assume that OpenDNS has categorized xyz.com as a website containing adult material and so it responds to your router telling it that that site doesn’t have a numeric address. Your router then tells your computer, “Sorry, I couldn’t find the address for that website, it doesn’t exist.” And your computer then can’t go to a site that it thinks doesn’t have a numeric address.
The great thing is that once you setup your router to use OpenDNS then it takes affect on any computer that connects to your network! One change that fixes the issue on all the devices in your house that use your internet connection. The free service is preconfigured and you can use it to your hearts content. For about $20 a year you can get even more granular control of the various categories of websites that will be blocked. I would encourage you to use the pay service as a way to support OpenDNS. (I don’t get any thing at all from OpenDNS if you use them but I’ve found them to be a great service. If you find another service like this that you like better then feel free to use them.)
If you don’t have any clue about configuring you router to use OpenDNS then don’t worry! The OpenDNS website has tutorials for most popular home routers and provides instructions for configuring them.
I must mention, there is a way around OpenDNS. If someone with administrative rights logs onto a computer they can manually set that particular computer to use whatever DNS servers they want. This subverts the router if the router isn’t configured to block DNS requests from computers on your network. Again, don’t worry, you can fix that issue as well by blocking the port that those requests use. It’s a little bit more technical to do that, but I am working on a blog post to address that as well. For now, just make sure your kids logon to the computer with a non-administrator account and you should be good to go!
Windows Live Family Safety
So, OpenDNS can help with the internet connection at your home but what about if your child has their own laptop that they take with them to other places with internet, how do you put bumpers up then? If you have a computer running Windows then Microsoft has created a free solution for that too! (We all love free solutions.) Unfortunately if you’re a fan of Apple products this solution won’t work for you, I hope to cover a solution for Mac in a future post.
The first thing to do is to setup a “Live Account” at http://live.com for yourself and each of your kids. If you have a Hotmail account then you can use that account and will only need to setup one for each of your kids. After you have the accounts setup you will need to install Windows Live Essentials on each of your computers and make sure you select the “Family Safety” option for install. (For versions of Windows up through Windows 7 you’ll have to tie your kids computer logons to their Live.com account. For Windows 8 and above your kids can use their Live account as their computer logon account.) Once you install Windows Live Essentials you will want to logon to the Family Safety website (http://familysafety.live.com). Once your there you will find instructions for setting up a whole set of options to help configure not only the websites that your child can visit but also the particular applications they an run on their computer. It really is a powerful solution with intuitive options. In addition, Microsoft will send you a weekly report on the websites your child has visited as well as the amount of time they have spent on the computer and the applications they have been using. No matter what internet connection your child uses to access the internet through their computer Family Safety is there to provide the bumpers help prevent your child from landing a “gutter ball”. Another great thing is the Family Safety can also help configure Xbox or Windows Phones. So, if your worried about your child and their smartphone then it’s a great reason to give them a Windows smartphone but still help provide bumpers.
In closing, you should know that I don’t get any kind of kick back from either OpenDNS or Microsoft for recommending these products and services. The only thing I get is great satisfaction in pointing out that the challenges of the digital age can be addressed and even non-techie people can find effective tools for placing bumpers on the internet and digital technologies for their family.