There are a handful of websites out there that tout themselves as kid-friendly or kid-safe search options. These kid-friendly websites are most often used for homework research and other school-related assignments. Safe websites for kids are a difficult concept because it involves accessing the internet through a standard browser which opens up regular browsing options. Most parents have some level of fear or concern regarding internet searches and content. Any child, who can read or write, knows how to open a browser and type in search terms. If they know how to spell the word, they know how to search the internet for it. Misspelling words can sometimes be more dangerous than correct spelling.
This presents several obvious and some not-so-obvious challenges for parents.
On the internet incorrect spelling alone can be a problem. It is common for intentionally misspelled words to be used as brand names or to obscure content that would generally be considered inappropriate or otherwise be blocked or filtered.
Consequently, a variety of sites exist that proclaim the kid-safe or kid-friendly nature of their search capabilities. To be sure, these sites are friendlier than the wide-open, wild west of the internet.
Types of Curating
What should you be expecting from a site that proclaims itself as “kid-friendly” or “kid-safe”? There are going to be a limited number of approaches from website owners trying to provide filtered content for kids.
- Create a site that only allows a preset, select group of pages to be searched or navigated. This requires humans to review and approve sites for inclusion on that list (known as whitelisting). It means that there are limited resources approving web pages so they can only be added as fast as they are approved manually. The advantage is that there is an actual human looking at the pages that are available for search or navigation. There is not a computer that is in the process of being trained on how to evaluate web pages for inclusion or exclusion.
- Write a program or algorithm that looks at web pages and decides if they are going to be allowed as results for a search. This method will also include filtering the search terms themselves. If someone types a prohibited word in as a search term, then the system can stop the search process before it begins. Again, according to the algorithm being used by the system. The most common algorithm by far is Google SafeSearch.
- The third approach is a combination of the first two. Where the speed and capability of computer systems are harnessed to do the bulk of the work but there is still some form of manual curation involved in the process. Many of the websites listed as kid-friendly use a combination. They invoke Google SafeSearch which block what Google considers to be sexually explicit content, and they also use Google Custom Search, which allows the webmaster to include certain websites as being available for search results (whitelisting) and to exclude certain websites as always being excluded (blacklisting) as possible search results.
The advantage of the algorithm is that it can incorporate new web pages as fast as they are created. Under the first scenario, you might possibly have a hard time searching for current events topics unless the system is designed to allow entire websites and does not restrict based on web pages.
The other important distinguishing factor between the two options is cost. With a human review process, there is a process with costs based on the time available (which may often be volunteer time). In order to create an algorithm that programmatically examines web pages, there is a significant initial investment but a smaller ongoing investment.
Some sites are a combination of both techniques.
The kid-friendly web sites generally fall into these categories:
- Applications that are downloaded onto a specific device to control the search process
- Websites that have proprietary search capabilities they have created or borrowed
- Websites that have curated a list of acceptable websites or pages
The advertisements that appear from Google will have limited filtering in place and the type and number of ads are not controlled by the local website but instead by Google. Websites that use Google for true search (which is basically all of them) must display Google ads unless they qualify as government, educational or non-profit organizations. The only website I have found that took the step to become a non-profit and therefore can eliminate the Google ads is www.kidssearch.com.
If I click on an ad I am no longer on the Kid-Safe website, but I am on the advertisers’ website without any filtering in place.
The Battle Between the “Blocked” and the “Blockers”
Websites that would normally be blocked, may attempt to modify their web pages once they understand the algorithm that is excluding them from certain searches to circumvent the filtering process. To that end, the algorithm must be continually updated and modified to keep up. It is a cat and mouse game much like that happening in the computer virus space where new threats are constantly being created and guarded against. This is not an insignificant investment and necessarily means that it is mostly left to large organizations like Google.
Who Is Deciding What Content Is Appropriate?
From the article “4 Safe Search Engines for Kids” here are some relevant thoughts to consider about who are the people that are making the decisions about what content is appropriate to display to your kids on their “kid-friendly” search site.
“Who is hand-picking?
Safe search that is geared towards children has always had to answer the question: who picks the inappropriate keywords? Who decides what content is child-friendly?
It should be no surprise that not all parents agree on what is appropriate, let alone different cultures, religions, and other social positions.
In other words, what Google or other search engines feel is appropriate or inappropriate does not necessarily capture every parent’s wishes. This makes it all the more important for parents and educators to continue to be proactive, even with these powerful tools.
While these tools are incredibly powerful and can allow children to be much more curious and independent online, there is really no substitution for parent and teacher involvement when it comes to learning about the internet and the power of search engines.
By teaching kids HOW search engines work, what they can do, and the kind of content that is fully at their fingertips, kids can feel empowered to research and learn in ways they never had imagined!”
Who is coding the algorithm?
The same question could be asked about the people who are coding the algorithms that are determining the content that reaches the end-user. In the end, the question is the same. Who is making the determination about the content that is acceptable and makes it into the search results and the content that is filtered or blocked?
Here again, not all parents are going to agree on what qualifies as appropriate and what constitutes inappropriate content.
An algorithm is a computer program that takes an input and determines the proper action to take based on how it has been coded to respond. In our circumstance the algorithm might work something like this:
- A search term is entered into the kid-friendly search bar and the search button is pressed
- The algorithm has a list of sexually explicit blocked search terms. If any of the blocked terms are found, then no results are returned and a message is displayed indicating the search term is not allowed.
- The kid-friendly search process executes unblocked searches that were entered into the website
- This search would produce a list of webpages from various websites. The process has a list of blocked websites, sites for which it has determined no webpages are acceptable for display. This would include all known pornography sites and probably a long list of other sites where the algorithm has determined that there is simply too much risk. Publishers of sexually explicit material are notorious for constantly changing their website URLs, so this is a constant maintenance effort on the part of blocking and filtering programs and webmasters.
- If a search does not use blocked search terms and the website or webpage is not blocked, then the kid-friendly search process will take each page in the search results and perform an examination of the actual contents of that specific page (this may be done at the time of the search or in advance). Based on how it was coded the algorithm will look for certain characteristics that have been programmed to identify inappropriate content. These may include:
- A search for all the words located on the page that might be inappropriate. This could be the same list as the blocked search terms page or may be a different list.
- A search of links on the page for blocked websites and webpages. There could be logic employed to disable links on a search page or to simply discard the page based on links.
- A search of images on a webpage. The earlier attempts to use algorithms to identify sexually explicit material focused on the percent of skin tones found in each of the images. This was better than nothing but fell short. This type of logic tended to block images that may have been acceptable (although that is a better way to fail than not blocking sexually explicit content) such as images of babies that tend to have a lot of skin tones. Also, there have been issues with skin tones in general based on the wide variety of skin tones that exist in the real world in general. The processes for identifying sexually explicit images have continued to improve over time and will continue to improve. However, the efforts of sexually explicit content providers to circumvent this logic also continues.
Even given all the time and effort that goes into blocking sexually explicit content, there is still a human being making a determination about what they consider to be acceptable either through manually curation or writing code to build an algorithm. That judgment may or may not align with your judgment as a parent or educator.
Maturity of the Kid-friendly Search Website Marketplace
As markets mature there is a consolidation process and a thinning process. In this case, there has been mostly a thinning process. In my research on kid-safe web pages, I have found that there is a handful that has ceased operations, been acquired by other organizations or appear to have ceased updating their content. There are others that have abandoned their own original efforts and simply employed free services offered by one of the large players in that space, most often Google.
My Unconfirmed Perception of How We Got Here
I have tried to research the history of the kid-friendly and kid-safe search websites, but it is hard to come up with a concrete timeline that I can document. Here is a possible version of what may have happened that makes sense based on what I have read.
Early in any concept, there are a number of people who have similar ideas and implement them in similar yet different ways. It looks like there were pockets of people that had this idea in mind. It seems like these were either parents or educators that were in groups at school districts or among friends.
These early pioneers mostly took the approach of manually curating content that would be appropriate for kids. The oldest versions of websites designed with kid-friendly content in mind were simply lists of links to websites that were deemed appropriate. It seems like it was a little later in the process that they began to add search capabilities. That meant that this group of people would create a web page with a search bar as you see on current websites. The difference being that there was control over the search function so that searches only allowed a preselected list of websites or webpages. This group would then manually examine each webpage or website and determine if the content was appropriate. If it was then it would be included as a source for their search function.
Consequently, only articles or websites that had been reviewed would be included. This creates a problem. The content on the internet is growing much more rapidly than any group of people can keep up with who are reviewing. Granted, these groups had no interest in the majority of the content that was being created. However, even the content they were interested in was growing faster than they could keep up with. It means that their allowed content would become stale, very quickly. Their audience of elementary and secondary age students would not be able to use their services for most current events or recent discoveries.
At some point in this process, Google (and other large internet companies) became interested in the process of filtering content. Some of the interest in content filtering had to do with laws in other countries. For example, in China pornography is illegal. This was a point of contention between Google and the Chinese government in 2009. This may have been part of the reason Google developed their SafeSearch capability, in an attempt to satisfy the Chinese government. The ability to permanently turn on the SafeSearch feature was introduced in that same year when Google was dealing with the issue of pornography in their Chinese searches.
When Google entered the picture with the ability to create a computer-based software process for finding and filtering sexually explicit content, then the process of manually curating content becomes much more outmoded. Competing with Google in any arena is a difficult proposition at best, especially when Google will provide their service free of charge (at least free in the sense that you don’t have to pay them for it). Most kid-safe and kid-friendly search sites that are still functional are powered by Google SafeSearch for content filtering and use Google Custom Search to restrict websites.
The efforts of people and organizations to provide tools to block objectionable content is significant. These efforts will continue to improve over time. The efforts of those publishing objectionable content will also continue unabated.
There were several groups and individuals that made early efforts to provide kid-friendly search capabilities. Most of these groups now fall into two clear groups. Websites that provide only links to appropriate webpages for useful information and those that use available tools. Almost all websites that use available tools take advantage of Google SafeSearch and Google Custom Search.
Parents and educators should be aware of the shortcomings and strengths of these various approaches. Parents should also realize that the efforts of these groups may not align with their own values in terms of what is judged to be appropriate or acceptable content.
This post refers specifically to websites that are promoted as kid-friendly or kid-safe using a standard browser and not to separate applications for internet browsing.
About the Author:
Terry has been an entrepreneur in the IT industry for over30 years. Go here to read his complete personal story, “Husband, father, Grandfather and IT Executive.” If you want to send Terry a quick message visit the contact page Here.
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