Parents increasingly turn to Net filters

Many more parents are using technology to keep their kids safe online, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The survey of families with children age 12 to 17 found a sharp rise in the number of parents who use some sort of Internet filtering tools to prevent their children from visiting unsavory Web sites or chatting with unknown people. A majority of Net connected families said they used such software -- 54 percent now compared to about 40 percent four years ago.

"Perhaps parents are using filtering tools because don't have to continually rethink it. They just set it and it runs," said Amanda Lenhart, the report's author. "For the most part, filtering is a safety net. Parents don't have a lot of time right now."

The filtering tools studied included software products sold separately, such as NetNanny or SpectorSoft, as well as parental control tools offered by Internet providers such as America Online and Microsoft's MSN.

Despite the negative publicity that sometimes surrounds Internet use, a growing number of parents see it as a positive influence. About two-thirds of parents with teens believe that "overall the Internet is a good thing for their child," up from 55 percent in December 2000.

No surprise: Parents, children disagree
But keeping those kids safe is still an uphill battle, the study found. Two-thirds of both kids and parents said that youngsters are still getting places they shouldn't get with their computers.

And that's about the only point on which parents and their kids agree. For example, two-thirds of parents said they check where kids went online after the fact, but only one-third of kids said their parents do so.

The findings are similar to results from a Kaiser Family Foundation study released last week. In that survey, 46 percent of kids said their parents had rules about their use of media, including the Internet, but just 20 percent said the rules are enforced "most" of the time.

Child safety expert Parry Aftab, who operates, said those kinds of discrepancies are typical of such parental surveys.

"A lot of parents tell surveyors things that make them sound like good parents," she said.

"If you ask parents if they are taking care of their children, they'll say 'Yes.' If you ask parents if they are making their kids floss, they'll say they are, for example. But are they actually reviewing the Web sites kids are going to? Looking in the Internet browse cache? Most of the parents don't know how."

Aftab also said she didn't believe 54 percent of parents were using filtering tools. "They may say they are, but they aren't."

The Pew study is based on questions asked of 1,100 children from ages 12 to 17 and their parents during a random telephone survey conducted Oct. 26 to Nov. 28. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Low-tech tools still popular
Even with the rise in use of filtering tools, most parents are still using old-fashioned low-tech ways to keep their kids safe online, the survey found. About three-quarters of parents with teenage children said their household computer is located in a public place inside the house.

Lenhart said parents who used filtering software should know that the tools are imperfect. On the one hand, creative children get around the tools; on the other, the filters can block legitimate sites.

"(Filters) are not the whole answer," Lenhart said.  "They under-block and they over-block. It's important that parents talk with their kids and develop a sense of media literacy."

Leaving the job of monitoring to imperfect software tools can have grave consequences, said family therapist Susan Shankle, who is based in South Carolina. She counsels families after children have dangerous liaisons with people they meet online, and thinks parents have to be more directly involved in what their kids do online.

Shankle thinks use of filtering software could do as much hard as good.

"People think, 'Let me fix this problem by going and buying something else,’" Shankle said.

"People are getting the software, but because they have the software, they are more complacent then they would be without it. It's a panacea for parents to feel better about what they are doing. But just because they have that software, by no means should they let their guard down."