My husband and I have been increasingly focused on these questions as our children get older, become more independent, more tech savvy, and more inquisitive.
We have always run a “tight ship” in terms of closely monitoring the television shows we watch as a family, movies we see at the theater, or video games we play. Thanks to sites like Common Sense Media or the IMDB Parent’s Guide we are able to see a categorical breakdown of the media’s content in terms of subjects like profanity, violence, positive message, consumerism, and nudity. When it comes to our kids and the internet, however, there is no all-inclusive parent’s guide. Everything is at their little fingertips.
There was a time that we were naive enough to think that using Youtube Restricted Mode or Google Safe Search was an adequate method of keeping the “bad stuff” out. I’m here to tell you IT'S NOT, which we have, unfortunately, learned the hard way. Those site-specific methods are largely community monitored, meaning that a YouTube video is only flagged as “inappropriate” if a YouTube user marks it as such. Even the YouTube Kids App, whose target audience is children ages 3-8, includes a disclaimer that its possible for inappropriate content to slip through.
After my husband and I researched solutions, we ultimately determined that we needed a device capable of filtering and monitoring internet traffic as it entered our home, giving us the power to self-monitor and filter out the “bad stuff”. We have also taken full advantage of the built-in parental control features in our childrens' devices.
So, here is a breakdown of five (5) parental controls, in no particular order, that we have implemented in our home that are proving to be effective. I will followup with details about the specific hardware device we chose to purchase as a result of our own research.
1. Time Restrictions
Setting limits in general is beneficial in a child's world—and in an adult's world too. The same holds true for internet usage. Establishing time limits and time restrictions for your family can help them stay safe on the internet, such as preventing late-night browsing that could put children in danger or encouraging internet in moderation by setting daily usage limits. We have put this into action in our home by using available technology to create unique profiles for each member of our family, then enforcing individual bedtimes by scheduling the internet to turn off at configured times. We also set individual internet usage limits per day and "Off times" during homework and family meal times.
While we can't always trust websites and services to adequately filter out inappropriate content, we can take some control into our hands by filtering out content before it gets to our kids at the point of entry—the router or WiFi access point. Depending on the filtering hardware you choose, you may have broad filtering options to block content categorically, such as blocking all "Adult" content, although, in most cases it's best to have more granular control.
For example, blocking all websites categorized as "Videos" would block everything from YouTube to Netflix, to PBS Kids, but with finer control, you can choose the specific sites to which you want to allow or disallow access. We used our individual internet access profiles to set a combination of several categorical filters (eg. adult content and social media sites) and site-specific filters (eg. YouTube) based on the age and maturity level of the family member.
Ideally, the software or device you choose will have logging capabilities. Internet history logs and usage logs are beneficial in several ways, including monitoring where your children are going on the internet, and whether the filters you've put into place are doing their jobs. We keep history logs and usage logs on each individual family member and device connected to our home network. From the logs, we can determine how much time each family member has spent online—total and per website visited—where they spent their time, and which browsing sessions were successful and which were denied access.
4. Restricted Accounts
Most devices and services these days have some form of built-in parental controls out of the box, so its best to take full advantage of those tools already at your disposal. While the setup of the parental controls will vary from device to device and service to service, most have similar features: the ability to setup separate "parent" and "child" accounts; the ability to restrict those accounts to features of your choosing; and the ability to setup a password or PIN requirement in order to bypass the restrictions or gain access to the settings. We have setup each of our family's devices in this way.
Our children's Apple products are setup with Family Sharing and each person has a unique Apple ID. This allows us to control each Apple ID in terms of what services are allowed. I also receive a notification any time a 'child' device wants to download a new app, or access a restricted feature, with the ability to approve or dissaprove the action.
On our Android devices we've setup Restricted Profiles. Similar to the Apple devices, we can use the restricted profile to control which apps and features are allowed and also lock the ability to change those settings with a passcode.
In terms of services, we are fairly heavy users of Netflix. We have setup a Netflix account profile for each family member and assigned one of the available profile levels for each person based on their age and maturity level. This allows us to filter Netflix content based on rating. One well-documented drawback of Netflix is there is no way within the app to prevent profile switching, which pretty much makes profiles for the purpose of filtering out innapropriate content null and void. However, when Netflix is used on an android device with a restricted profile, the android software can prevent netflix profile switching. So, we're using those in tandem. Hopefully, Apple devices will add that feature in the near future.
Last, but definitely not least, is to communicate with your children about the importance of internet safety and keep yourself educated. As parents, we can implement all the safeguards in the world in our homes to protect our children, but there will always be vulerabilities. They're going to get on the internet at friends houses or grandparents homes. They're going to push limits and find loopholes. They've grown up in a generation that has been immersed in technologies that weren't even thought to be a capability when we were their age. Seize the opportunity to have those important conversations and at an early age, but keep them age-appropriate.
5. Communicate and Educate
Also, as parents we must stay educated on the latest technologies, including the newest innapropriate app or social media platforms. Technology is getting “smarter”, and parents must get smarter, too. I highly recommend NetSmartz.org, by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for this purpose, a favorite resource for several presentations I have made to parents. They offer games, videos, training resources, and other tools for all ages, and they regularly update their resources to stay up-to-speed with the latest technologies. Their other sites, NetSmartzKids.org and NSTeens.org, will be of interest, too.
After much research, and learning from our mistakes, we decided to go with the Circle device. Circle was incredibly easy to setup—plug it in, connect to it via WiFi with a smartphone, provide it with the password to your WiFi access point, and voila! Unlike other solutions, there was no device-specific software installation or configuration.
Our Technology Choice
From there, we setup each family member's profile, configured filtering levels and time limits, and then assigned their devices to their profile. Now, from the simplicity of an app, we can view logs, pause the internet for anyone or everyone, adjust filters, receive push notifications anytime a new device connects, or even send rewards to our children like late bedtime or extended usage.
We've been happy with the way Circle has worked for us so far, and for a brief period we feel like we've got a handle on this whole thing—until the next big advancement in technology comes along. I'm guessing we have about a week. Its a neverending learning and adjusting experience, but our children are worth it!