Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review: Action Alert

Internet safety is a big concern for parents. (If it's not, it ought to be!) I don't want to sound paranoid, but cruising the Internet is like rowing on a crocodile-infested river. Something nasty lurks under the surface, waiting to grab the unwary, or those who deliberately dip in, looking for trouble. Sometimes trouble even comes looking for you.

Even I (and I am very careful in my Internet usage) have encountered the seamy underside, quite by accident. There were the innocent Internet searches that brought up unexpected and unsavory results. (Reminds me of that scene in the movie Bells are Ringing where Judy Holliday stares at the police inspector in horror and disgust -- she's shy, innocent, and helpful and he re-casts all her actions as immoral behavior -- and scolds him with, "You have a dirty mind!" Yup. Apparently lots of dirty minds out there.) There was the time I had a two-year-old in my lap, and I clicked an innocent-sounding link, and a picture loaded too quickly. I was fumbling to wipe it out, but not before my tiny daughter said, "Mommy, why aren't they wearing any clothes?" Aargh.

Even a careful parent can't just trust that their children will be as careful, or use good judgement. (Children and judgement don't always go together. Come to think of it, there are adults I  know who also fit that description.)

This is why companies like Action Alert have come up with Internet filtering, blocking, and monitoring software. Action Alert is an award-winning program with a free version, and also a paid version.

In theory, I love the idea of Action Alert. In practice, things are a little more complicated.

The program works only on Windows-based computers, and our student PC runs Ubuntu-Linux, which pretty much shuts that out. I still haven't figured out how to limit Internet access and put time controls on that computer. I really need to research open source parental control software that will work under Linux... Until then, we've got to maintain physical control and parental monitoring (as in walking by and looking at the screen at intervals when a child is using the computer). I'm also thinking of disabling the Internet access on the student laptop, though it would be inconvenient for transferring files from one computer to another, among other things.

I installed Action Alert on our main computer, lured by the promise that I would be able to remotely monitor computer access from a smart phone. Usually we leave the main computer locked down under a password when parents are gone, but there have been occasions when someone needed to get some schoolwork done while I was taking someone else to an appointment or lesson, and we've left the computer unlocked. Viewing the history afterward often showed that not just schoolwork was done while I was gone. (sigh) And let's not talk about the child who discovered how to delete the history.

I was a little nervous about the installation, actually. We'd tried using monitoring software before, and one program completely shut us out from the Internet (parents, too), and was very difficult to uninstall. I was worried about the computer slowing down or working differently, and at first, I did have major problems accessing the Internet with Action Alert until I figured out what I was doing wrong. The User Manual was less than helpful, as it keeps referring to a physical product that you plug into a USB port.

Not to mention the main family computer is the one both parents use. There's a lot of important stuff there, and I don't want it messed up. (Nor does my husband!)

As I mentioned, there's a free version and a paid version, as shown in a screenshot from their website:

I found installation pretty quick and easy, though my anti-virus program was a little nervous about the whole thing. Once installation was complete, my Internet browser started acting kind of wonky, and got wonkier as the evening went on. I really needed to explore the Action Alert controls and make sure of the right settings before I was able to settle in and use the computer effectively again. (As mentioned, I didn't find the user manual as helpful as I'd hoped, but by reading the manual, interspersed with clicking around in the controls, I finally had things set up, more or less.)

I noticed that no matter what browser I brought up, Action Alert was on the job. It brought up a custom search page as the home page. The program notifies the parent by email (or text on a smart phone) if flagged words are searched.

I was already familiar with some of the Internet safety tools offered by this program, but the real draw was the ability to shut down PC access remotely. If the girls were playing instead of doing schoolwork, theoretically I'd get an email or text on my phone, wherever I might be, and be able to shut down the computer from my phone. The rush! The power! The sense of omniscience and omnipotence... okay, let's not get carried away. Back to reality.

The activity video recording was also a neat feature that I was interested in perusing, but I really didn't get the full benefit of this, or the remote access, as I uninstalled the program again without exploring these. I'm just too nervous about impacting the function of our main computer. If I had a student computer running Windows that I could have installed the program on, I probably would have let it run for the entire course of the review, just to give the product a thorough workout.

My take on this product? I think it's a great idea. I'd love to try it on a student computer. Maybe when we (someday) buy a new computer and relegate this one to student status, we'll give Action Alert another try.

Pricing and availability

Action Alert is available at the Action Alert website. There's a version you can try for free (I'd advise you to do that if you're interested, to see how it works for your family), and also a premium version for $29.95. If you buy the premium version, there's a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Read more TOS Homeschool Crew reviews of Action Alert at this link.

Disclaimer: Our family received a free download of Action Alert for review purposes. No additional compensation was involved.

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