Thousands of Americans use American Online (AOL) as their Internet service provider, especially since you can now get it free through your high-speed Internet connection. Parents don’t worry about their kids using AOL because they have set the convenient AOL Parental Controls feature, which is supposed to keep young ones from accessing forbidden sites on the Internet. However, kids have learned how to get past their parents’ Internet monitoring programs by using the AOL “Guest” feature.
When you sign up for AOL, you can include up to seven screen names on your account, all of which can be customized with individual access levels: Kids Only, Young Teen, Mature Teen and General. The Kids Only access level does not permit instant messaging and severely limits chat, e-mails and web browsing to Kids-Only channels. The Young Teen gives more chat and web browsing capability, and gives access to IM’s within the AOL network. The Mature Teen is almost the same as General, but still limits web browsing to sites that have not been flagged as containing adult content.
This sounds like a good deal and might give you the impression that your kids are safe, but this is definitely not true. You’ve probably noticed on your AOL sign-in screen that there is an option for “Guest” under the list of screen names. The guest account doesn’t have any built-in AOL Parental Controls, but you have to have an outside screen name and password in order to use it. Obviously, your kids can’t create their own screen names and passwords, but there are other ways.
Kids have figured out that if they use the Guest account, AOL Parental Controls need not apply. So they’ve begun passing out screen names and passwords at school which don’t have any Parental Controls (i.e. set to “General”) and they access those accounts where their parents aren’t in the room. Since most parents don’t monitor their kids’ Internet usage minute-by-minute — especially since the AOL Parental Controls are in place — the kids can use these guest accounts whenever they wish.
The solution? There really isn’t much of one. You can subscribe to Net Nanny or another Internet monitoring service that will keep your kids from accessing forbidden content no matter which web browser they use, but this certainly doesn’t prevent them from doing what they wish at friends’ houses or even at the local library. There are also Internet coffee shops where the firewalls are thin and kids can go where they please. The Internet has created an all-access pass for kids who want to connect over the Internet — even if they want to connect in ways of which you don’t approve.
Your best bet is to check in on your kids every once in a while when they use the Internet. Red flags that they are doing something inappropriate might include a cleared browser history after they are finished or strange files saved to your computer’s hard drive. You might want to limit their use of the Internet to an hour or two each day — and only for school work or chatting with friends — to minimize the damage the Internet can create.