DIY Guide to Keeping Children Safe Online Without Costly Filters

10/24/2011 12:00:00 AM

With ominous acronyms being thrown about such as CIPA and FERPA and COPPA, it’s no wonder educators are running scared when it comes to internet use and that filtering companies are profiting from the culture of fear that results. Unfortunately, doing what is most convenient (blocking and banning sites) is often not what is best for children or teachers. It is not uncommon for the tech-savvy teacher to throw up her hands because too many sites are blocked to be able to work effectively. Students have similar frustrations. The reality when it comes to filtering is that schools have not lost funding due to opening up access to valuable content for children. Of course this must be done responsibly, but it does not require the costly filters that don’t exist in the real worlds of our children. 

Here are some ways you can empower children to stay safe at school and in the world and they don’t cost a dime.


It is important for schools to take responsibility for children's safety online. Here are some ways to get started.

Responsible Use
The most important thing we can do is teach children to be responsible online. I and several of my colleagues have experience teaching in a no filter zone where instead we focus on empowering students to use the most important filtering tool available: The one between their ears. The reality is that in most cases, students don’t feel comfortable having inappropriate content come up in their searches. This is generally not something they want to engage in at a school setting. Empowering students to know how to do their own safe browsing is not only a good thing for them to know in school, but a good thing for them to know in life. Empowering them to know what to do when something inappropriate comes up is also a necessary skill for use outside of school. 

When we stop fighting and start partnering with our students, the results will pay off. We can also empower students to self monitor by having discussions about responsible use, consequences, and asking them, rather than the teacher, to hold one another accountable. In my library media center, I had several students designated with badges as “Responsibility Officers.” They supported other students in staying on track. These also often happened to be the students who typically might be more likely to get off track.

Responsible Teaching
One of the reasons I had few problems teaching in an unfiltered environment was because students knew exactly what to do. Part of lesson planning when using the Internet requires teachers to outline what sites students should be visiting and options for how to create meaning. I knew what sites my students were visiting and they were pre-screened and vetted by me in advance. 

We can’t make rules for that one child who may stray, but instead for the majority of the students that will be excited to learn relevant content using technology. That one child can get around the filters anyhow and likely one day will be employed by one of those filtering companies.


The Internet of the 21st century has safety features built in. Teach your parents and, if appropriate, your students how to use these effectively. Doing so will keep students safe at school and in the world for which we are tasked to prepare them.

Safe Browsing
Most web browsers have safety features installed. You can make your browser safe by activating its safety features. Here is how.

Parental controls
There are a variety of parent control add ons available. Decide which one is right for you by doing a search in your browser for “Parental Controls” and your “Browser Name.” Read the descriptions, install the one that best suits your needs and try it out.
  • Internet Explorer Check out this guide to discover how restrict web browsing in IE.
  • Firefox This article from Read Write Web suggests one option for safe browsing that looks geared toward elementary school students. Firefox also has suggestions for filtering inappropriate web content here.
  • Chrome Chrome doesn’t have built in parental controls. Instead they recommend using an add on such as Web Filter pro or for Windows users installing something like Windows Live Family Safety which provides safe internet filters, reports to monitor computer activity and even set time periods when the computers can be used.

Safe Search
You can ensure your students search safely online with three simple steps.

  • Activate it! You can go to Google advance settings and select SafeSearch which will filter out sites that contain content you would not be comfortable having children see. You can select strict filtering to help filter out explicit text as well as images. You can modify your computer’s SafeSearch settings by clicking on Search settings at the top right of the Google homepage.
  • Lock it! You can protect this setting with a password so it can’t be changed without your knowledge, using SafeSearch LockJust click on Search settings in the upper right corner of the Google homepage. Choose “Strict Filtering” and then click “Lock SafeSearch.” Once locked, the Google search results page will be visibly different to indicate that SafeSearch is locked.
  • Customize it! Create a personalized, customized search engine that searches only across sites that you specify and displays results that you want your children to see with a Google Custom Search Engine (CSE). You simply choose the websites and pages you'd like then follow a few simple steps which you can find here  to create a CSE. Search engines can be created by all the teachers in the school and can be aligned to various subjects or units of study. Some teachers might consider having students create custom search engines too.

You can learn more about safe search at 12 Ways To Be More Search Savvy.

Safety Features in Frequently Used Sites
Many frequently used sites have safety features. For instance, teachers know YouTube is the #1 tool for learning, but at many schools it is blocked due to unsafe content. Check the site’s safety settings and activate them. Here is how to do this for YouTube.

  • YouTube When you opt in to Safety Mode on YouTube it means that videos with mature content or that have been age-restricted will not show up in video search, related videos, playlists, shows or films. It is also designed to hide objectionable comments. To activate it, click on the link at the bottom of any video page to select Safety Mode and lock it for that browser with your YouTube password.
  • Other sites Determine what the frequently used sites are at your school and enable their safety filters.Empower your parents, and, if appropriate, students to do the same.

While it is certainly easier to plop down money for Internet filtering software, doing so is not what is best in preparing our children for success in the real world. In fact often there is a false sense of safety, and important conversations about responsible use are overlooked. Additionally, paying for filters in school does nothing toward preparing children for safety and success outside of school.

While it is true that outsourcing safety is easier than taking on the responsibility, it truly is not what is best for children.

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog,
The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in Huffington Post, EdReformer, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild,MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.
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