Kids and the internet: High-tech solutions to your online fears
Displayed is a LED-illuminated wireless router in Philadelphia, on July 27, 2008. (Matt Rourke / AP)
Meredith MacLeod, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Thursday, June 1, 2017 6:00AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 1, 2017 9:12AM EDT
There is no shortage of technology tools that purport to help parents protect their children from themselves and others online. Here's a snapshot of the range of options out there.
"They all tend to work the same way, by whitelisting and blacklisting certain content, limiting what kids can do in the app stores and restricting internet access times," said technology expert Carmi Levy. "They replace the free reign of internet with a restricted palette of options. Gradually, those limitations can be eased and then removed."
Circle – This small white cube connects to your Wi-Fi network and allows parents to filter content, add time restrictions and see the activity of every connected device on a home network. Each household member gets a profile and devices associated to them. There are filters for pre-K, kid and teen groups. The kid filter, for instance, blocks social media, mature or explicit content automatically. It will also block some app and site categories, including chat and forums and news. Parents can change any default settings and add custom filters. For $129 Cdn, Circle, owned by Disney, can shut down a user's connection for homework time or bedtime. To get around sneaky kids, there is no on-off button on the device and if your child unplugs it, you will get a notification.
Routers – Levy recommends spending a little extra money ($150 to $200 Cdn) to get a router that allows for password protection and activity logging. This will collect information even when your child is using a mobile device or game console. He says Google's OnHub leads the pack among a new generation of sophisticated, easy-to-use routers.
"It has fairly flexible controls, you can lock out devices for certain hours, build white lists and black lists, and it can be controlled through an app. Unlike older routers, you don't need an engineering degree to set up and manage it and you can limit kids' access while parents can still get on."
Web filters – There are a wide variety of parental control utilities to govern web access for kids, including Content Watch Net Nanny, Symantec Norton Family Premier, Infoweise SecureTeen, and Kaspersky Safe Kids. Your child will likely soon learn to cover their online tracks by deleting browser histories or enabling private browsing where no history is kept. Good monitoring software is not easily bypassed or detected. Make sure you are reviewing the log files periodically for anything concerning. The challenge is that these controls have to be installed on individual devices, which can be time-consuming and cumbersome in many households.
"The most important thing is to get something that works across multi-platforms and operating systems and to go with a name that is already associated with security software," said Levy.
Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based non-profit dedicated to digital and media literacy, recommends against putting too much faith in filters because some things get through that shouldn't, much gets blocked that should get through and they often reflect the political views or social values of the creator and may not mirror those of your family.
Apps – There are dozens of apps that purport to help parents monitor and control their kids' online lives. Checky collects data about how much time your child spends on his or her device, how many times they check it, and how that compares to others. Moment forces users off their devices when over a set limit, allows parents to see what apps teens are using most and to set screen-free family time, which sounds an alarm when anyone picks up their device. Screentime sets device-free homework time and bedtime and daily screen limits, pauses a device or grants time as a reward and creates to-do lists for homework and chores.
Others apps go much deeper. mSpy tracks all calls, messages and chats, can restrict incoming calls, and monitors internet use with browsing history and keyword alerts. Qustodio blocks pornography, even in private browsing mode, monitors time spent on social media, and controls time spent on apps or games.
There are even apps that will intercept and record calls, and track every message sent.
Levy says it's a mistake to think an app or software filter will be enough.
"You don't want to start by just downloading and installing an app. You have to think about who uses what device and how. Many parents feel technologically outclassed and outsmarted by their children and that will only get worse. The tighter you ratchet down a device, the more likely your kids will fight you on it."
Social media tracking – As kids get older, the concern is less about what they see on the internet and more about who they are interacting with online and what they are talking about. There are options, including VISR and TeenSafe, that flag certain words or phrases that could point to bullying, suicide, drug use, or explicit or violent content in social media posts. Parents also have the option to view everything their child is doing on social media. Of course, this only works if parents know what accounts their children have, have the login information or have convinced their kids to install the tracker app.
MediaSmarts "strongly recommends" against using social media surveillance apps "unless there is a clear and urgent need," said Johnson.
"Those apps send the opposite message to: ‘We trust you and come to us when you're in trouble.' Surveillance says we don't trust you and you should hide what you're doing."
Instead, he recommends that parents require that when kids establish a new online account, that the login information be written down and put somewhere safe, like a piggybank. "The message is: I reserve the right to check on you if I choose. Teens don't want to be left to run wild. They want to know their parents are there to keep them from going off the cliff."