Long summer days with the kids downloading all manner of Internet sludge has likely left your computer with the technology equivalent of a hangover. Before you give in to your kids' pleas to replace your old reliable, try a few simple things to get your computer back on track and running smoothly for schoolwork -- at least until winter break.
Run your antivirus and antispyware. I know, I know, you're probably tired of me saying it. However, when the kids have been wreaking havoc on your system all summer, it's highly likely that viruses and spyware are slowing it down. Before you click "Run Scan" and assume all is good, make sure you download the most current updates. If your protection programs have expired, consider downloading Microsoft's free all-in-one solution, Microsoft Security Essentials (www.microsoft.com/en-us/security--essentials/). Once you've installed it, it will automatically update itself and run regular scans without much more interaction from you. The best protection is the one you can forget you have.
Remove unwanted programs. Your teenager may think the program he installed to download and share music with his friends is imperative, but I bet you don't need it running in the background slowing down your system. Go to your control panel's "Add or Remove Programs" option to remove programs that have mysteriously popped up over the summer.
Set up user accounts; don't run as an administrator. Upon pulling that new computer out of the box, most people create one user account for the whole family to access computer programs and the Internet. If instead you create more than one user login (I'd recommend one for each member of the family), you can set rules and restrictions on your kids' accounts. This is a great way to limit kids' ability to download and install potentially malicious programs to your computer's hard drive. Accomplish this easily via the control panel's "User Accounts" option.
Activate parental controls in Windows 7 or Windows Vista. Both of these newer Windows operating systems have embedded parental control options that will allow you to limit your child's screen time and control Internet access and downloads.
Install a hardware firewall. Most users access the Internet through some sort of broadband connection (cable and DSL are the most common). While they're far speedier than dial-up Internet access, the lines also let malicious software more easily access and attack your system if you don't install some sort of firewall on the connection. Windows has a software firewall you can (and should) activate. But a better line of defense is to also install a hardware version.
Installing a basic router will adequately protect most home-based users. Make sure that it's configured per the manufacturer's recommendations, that you change the router's default password settings and that you keep the firmware updated.
If your kids protest these measures, tell them they'll have to make it through high school without Internet access.
(Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds on Call, which offers on-site computer and home theater set-up and repair. Based in Redding, Calif., it has locations in five states. Contact Eldridge at www.callnerds.com/andrea.)