Fighting to Keep Kids Safe Online

"Do you want to see me naked?"

"Type in a credit card number for good times."

These types of messages are just some of the explicit chatter crossing the virtual highway every second, but filtering software is rapidly being upgraded to help parents put a stop to the smut on their home computers.

Patty Trainer, a mother of two in Kimberton, Pa., set up AOL's parental controls to protect her 8-year-old daughter, but was horrified at what appeared in the little girl's inbox.

"My daughter checked her messages. She hadn't been on for a couple of weeks and had 93 mostly pornographic e-mail messages … subjects like 'Women With Farm Animals,'" she said.

A Harris Interactive and Sony study found that 86 percent of children surveyed are enthusiastic about engaging in technology-based activities with their parents at home, but only 37 percent of parents actually participate in the activities with their kids.

Experts like Andrew Tull, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Net Nanny security software, say parents need to "wake up, smell the coffee and get educated about what's out there."

Systems like Net Nanny, which has a fifth version of its software on the market now, are constantly improving their controls to help parents filter what their children see.

"It can block ads, cookies and parents can get e-mail activity reports," said Tull. "Parents can make individual selections as to what they want filtered. We provide a baseline list of industry standard sites usually blocked and provide links to other sites where parents can get educated about filtering."

Despite such strong controls, Tull added that the sheer volume of graphic material online makes it difficult to totally shield kids.

"There's a lot of nasty stuff out there, nobody's going to block 100 percent," he said.

And Net Nanny is already working on their next version, said David D'Andrea, director of research and development.

"We're adapting current technology to filter out online game chats," he said. Popular games such as "The Sims," which recently launched an online version, are often accompanied by chats populated by both adults and children.

Another feature in the works is image analysis, he said. "If you activate that feature when a page loads, you see all the text but no pictures. This can be an overkill reaction. We're working with image analysis software which will take a look at skin tone colors and [whether] this picture contains pornographic images."

Other services like AOL's parental controls have also revamped services.

"Spam that comes from the Internet is the biggest problem," said Nicholas Graham, spokesman for AOL. "We are trying to make it more easy for parents to report and block Spam they see."

But Trainer is exasperated that big online companies have yet to figure out how to filter R-rated e-mails. "What's the purpose of parental controls if all that stuff gets through?" she said.

Graham emphasized that controls "are not the answer, just a means to the end."

The best online experience kids can have combines parental controls with adult guidance, he said. "Parents have to be a part of the equation whenever kids go online."

"We are always trying to find ways to make [controls] easier and more convenient," he added. "We want it to be as easy as setting an alarm clock, not as difficult as filling out a tax return."

Other new features include AOL Guardian, which gives parents the option of receiving a report after online sessions, which records the length of time spent online, sites visited and number of e-mails and instant messages sent.

But even with all the advances, no filtering technology is going to be perfect, cautioned Mark Uncapher, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America. "They are really only tools and need to be constantly updated, as sites launch and go out of business on a regular basis."

Whether doing research for a school paper, playing games or e-mailing friends, computers are an indelible part of children's lives — beaming both good and evil with merely a click.

"The benefits outweigh the risks," said Trainer. "But it doesn't mean we should just accept those risks. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be victims."