What parents should think about when using or considering parental controls

By Larry Magid

(revised April, 2018)

Should I install Internet filtering or monitoring software?

Filters can usually prevent young children from accidentally stumbling on troubling or inappropriate material, but they are less effective at keeping older kids and teens from deliberately visiting blocked sites. There are several ways to get around filters, including using another computer, mobile phone, or tablet that’s not filtered.

Monitoring tools can inform parents of where their kids are doing but some kids –especially teens– feel that it’s an invasion of their privacy and many would argue that it’s not necessary or helpful. Another risk is “too much information.” Do you really want to look at every text message and review ever website your child visits.

What about time-limits?

There are apps that you can use to limit how much time your child spends on a device or a service. Some are built-into devices themselves and others are part of services, apps or games aimed at children. These limits can help you control not only how much time a child spends using the device, but the time-of-day as well, allowing you to set a “bed-time” for when the device must be turned off. These tools can be useful, especially with younger children, but should always be part of a larger discussion about the use of devices and media.

Don’t use stealth mode

The use of these tools is a personal decision that every family must consider. If you do use a tool, it’s a very good idea to tell your kids that it’s there and avoid using it in “stealth mode.” Your child will figure out it’s there anyway and, if you do find something that concerns you, you don’t want their first response to be “why are you spying on me.” It’s better to get that out of the way at the beginning.

What about controls built-into services and apps?
Some social media services and apps have their own controls, such as limiting the type of content your child can see or who you child can interact with. Sometimes these controls kick in automatically depending on your child’s age while others give parents the ability to manage or even monitor their child’s experience with that service. It’s a good idea to look at the service’s default settings for your child’s age group and see if you wish to adjust it if possible. Because of these safeguards, it’s important that children be honest about their age because they may not be available or they may be different if the service doesn’t know your child’s age.

Weaning from filters

Your child will be an adult before you know it and it will be up to them — not you — to regulate what they do and how they act online. If you use filters or monitoring tools, think about how to wean your kids away from them as they get older and more responsible.

Be a good role model

How you act in front of your children can have a bigger impact on what you say. It’s fine to put time-limits on your childrens’ use of technology but make sure they don’t see you over-using your technology, especially during family time when you should be interacting with them.

It ultimately depends on the child or teen

When it comes to parenting, one-size definitely doesn’t fit all. Most of our advice here is for average kids with average risk but there are kids who needs are different who may require stronger controls or monitoring. As with most parenting decisions, you need to think about your specific child and specific needs as well as your own risk-tolerance.

The filter between their ears

Ultimately, the only filter that can fully protect your child isn’t the one that runs on a computer or a phone but the the one that runs in the computer between their ears. It’s important to teach critical thinking skills to help children make good decisions on and offline now and as they mature. With any luck, your child will grow up and become independent so it’s important they they develop their own controls rather than relying on those imposed by parents or schools.

For more see Digital citizenship and media literacy beat tracking laws and monitoring.