By Larry Magid
I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with parental control tools that monitor or limit what kids can do with technology.
I love that busy parents can access tools to help them carry out their responsibility to control when and how long their kids can use devices, and make sure they’re using them appropriately. But I hate that, over the years, some companies that market these tools use fear tactics to sell them to parents. I’m also a bit concerned about over-reliance on technology as a substitute for in-person parenting.
Having said that, I’m glad to report some recent developments that help empower parents. Microsoft has recently updated its time management tools in the new Creators Edition of Windows 10, while Amazon just upgraded its FreeTime child-friendly content subscription service with a Parent Dashboard and more insight to help parents better understand the content that their kids are consuming.
Neither of these are revolutionary enhancements – both Microsoft and Amazon have long offered tools to make it relatively easy for parents to take some control over how their kids use their devices.
Other major companies, including Apple and Google, also offer parental controls. Parents can turn on content and time controls on any iPhone or iPad. There are numerous third party control and monitoring tools for all platforms and, as I wrote about recently, Google has launched the ability to create accounts for kids under 13 that gives parents lots of control over how they use their compatible Android device. Check with your mobile provider to see what parental controls it offers.
Some internet routers have optional built-in parental controls, which have the advantage of controlling all the devices on your home network, including TVs and game consoles. Another solution is the Circle with Disney, a $99 device that you add to your network to manage content to all your devices.
Facebook has some additional privacy tools for teens under 18 as well as a parents’ portalwith lots of safety, security and privacy resources including a Bullying Prevention Hub. The Google Safety Center has advice for everyone, including families. Snapchat also has an extensive safety center. Full disclosure: All three of these company’s safety centers list my Internet safety non-profit, ConnectSafely.org, among their partners and provide some financial support for the organization.
There are some limitations and cautions when it comes to any parental control tool. To begin with, they only work on devices or networks that are protected. All bets are off when your kid is visiting a friend’s house. And even if you have a tight rein on your home network, it may not carry over if the child connects their device to a cellular network or another WiFi network.
That’s why, speaking at an internet safety conference in 1996, I made the comment, “the best internet filter is the one that runs between the child’s ears,” and that’s just as true today. No matter how hard a parent tries, it is almost impossible to use technology to completely protect a child from anything that can go wrong with their use of technology.
But there is a bigger principle involved. The goal of parenting shouldn’t be to bubble-wrap our children to protect them against anything that can go wrong but rather to equip our children to make good decisions that will protect them for a lifetime. Former attorney general Dick Thornberg said it well, “One can build fences and post signs around a swimming pool to keep kids out, but the best way to keep kids from drowning is to teach them how to swim.”
It’s also important to take stock of what your child needs based on what you know about your child, not what some parental control vendor tells you. Consider your child’s age, maturity level and the type of risks they are likely to take.
Products to monitor or control internet or mobile use may be necessary for some kids, but not for all. Studies have shown that kids who get into some type of trouble online are often risk-takers in other aspects of their lives as well. And if you think a monitoring program will stop cyberbullying, consider that most bullying takes place in-person and not online, and even when it is online (or mobile) it is often a reflection of what’s going on at school or wherever kids are hanging out.
Finally, remember that our role as parents isn’t just to raise kids, it’s also to raise adults. With any luck our kids will leave the house sooner or later and our job is to equip them to make good decisions when we’re not around. That’s why, even if you use controls, I urge parents to wean their kids off them during their teen years and encourage that filter between their ears to take over.
I also urge parents to avoid using any monitoring software that runs in “stealth mode.” If you are going to install or turn on parental control tools, tell your kids what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s good for family dynamics and, if you do ever find something that you need to discuss with them, their first reaction won’t be to ask why you’re spying on them.