Smartphones, video game consoles and Internet browsers can be great devices for kids to learn and play with, but their internet-connected nature can make it difficult for parents to keep control over their use.
From accessing inappropriate content to using the device too much to racking up huge unexpected bills, unsupervised use of these devices can cause serious issues.
To address this issue, many communications carriers have created technology that gives parents control over their kids’ use of their devices and services. “Parental control technology” describes a wide variety of software and hardware solutions that parents and caregivers can use to restrict the content their children can access and the people they can communicate with.
The challenge is that, depending on the technology, medium, and service provider, parental control options vary quite a bit, so finding the most effective way to protect your children from adult content you’d rather not let them access can be tough.
To address this, this articles to help consumers navigate the landscape of parental control technology and find the options that are best for their families.
Parents often worry that, compared to their tech-savvy teens and pre-teens, they have little hope of keeping up with their use of technology. The truth is you don’t have to be a computer or technical expert to prevent your young ones from accessing content that you deem inappropriate. Here are some basic rules of the road to keep your kids safe online.
Talk to your children so they know what is acceptable, what sites you want them to stay away from, and who they are allowed to text, for example. This will help both you and your and children start a dialogue about safe use of technology.
Find out where they’re hanging out online. Get familiar with the Web sites your child or teen visits. Have them show you their favorite sites and discuss what they like about them.
Make sure your children understand that they should never give out identifying information about themselves, friends, or family members. This includes names, addresses, phone numbers, where you work, email addresses, passwords, social security numbers, and credit card numbers.
Create a technology “inventory.” Parents should know what technologies their children are using and what those devices are capable of. For example, does the families’ cable television service include on-demand content (potentially with access to adult programming)? Do the children’s cell phones include an Internet browsing capability? Are parental controls on the Internet browser’s software enabled?
Set up your computer in a central, open location, like the living room or kitchen, so Internet use can be supervised.
Create a family agreement for Internet use that includes items such as hours of use, what sites can be accessed, and what sites are off-limits.
Tell your children that if someone they are talking to online harasses, bullies, or makes them uncomfortable in any way, they should talk to a parent, teacher, or an adult they trust.
Every family is unique. We all have our own set of criteria for what we are comfortable with. Not all of these suggestions will apply to your family situation, and they are not intended to be a complete list of all available options. Hopefully, this can at least serve as a starting point to begin a conversation about safe practices for going online, watching TV, and connecting with others.
Parental Controls Phones and Tablets
If your child is getting their own iPhone, iPad or Android device, it's a good idea to set them up with their own Apple ID or Google account so you can keep their digital life and yours separate. Thankfully, you can do this without letting them loose to do whatever they want with their new device.
For Apple families, you'll need to use your own device to turn on Family Sharing for your own account, and then you can add the Apple ID of any family members to be part of your group. Children under 13 can't make their own Apple ID, so you'll have to do it for them.
If you'd prefer certain aspects of the device to be off-limits entirely, for example Safari or the App Store, you can do this on your child's device by accessing 'Restrictions' in the general settings. This is also how you can restrict the device's use of location services or access to adult-rated apps, music, movies and websites.
When your kids' accounts are connected to yours with Family Sharing, they will get access to any iTunes and App store purchases you make. If you'd like to give them the autonomy to buy their own things, you can activate "Ask to Buy", which sends a request directly to your phone when a child would like to use your credit card to buy something.
The process is much the same for Android families, with parental controls that limit apps, music and movies by classification on the device itself (you'll find it in the "settings" of any Google Play branded app).
Android devices don't usually come with the ability to block certain aspects of the phone entirely, or limit the kinds of websites you can access, although there are many parental control apps you can use to do this.
Anyone over 13 can sign up for a Google account, and if you add your kids to your Family Library group you can allow them to use your money for purchases by entering your PIN on their device.
Parental Controls Game Consoles
On both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, parents should sign in and create an account for themselves first, and then make one for their kids (this is called a child account on Xbox, or a sub account on PlayStation).
Though the systems work a little differently depending on which console you get, each allows the parent to decide what classification level is appropriate for each child, regulate their spending and limit their online activities.
As the holiday season approaches, Xbox's Jeremy Hinton says it's important for parents to be prepared to walk through game console rules with kids from the moment the machine is unwrapped.
"There are a lot of consoles and devices that will be sitting under Christmas trees right now to be opened on Christmas day", Hinton says. "And of course the kids will want to jump right in, but there really are a number of features that we think benefit the family considerably if they're done right at that first stage".
When you set up a child's account, the console will ask you to set appropriate rules and restrictions, so going through this process with the kids present can set ground rules from the get go.
On most platforms, content such as games, movies and apps are classified using a mix of official ratings and those determined by an independent body. Regardless of the platform, each child's account can be set to an appropriate level, from G to R.
"What we really want is for parents to have a level of confidence", Hinton says, "that you're child's not accidentally going to wander into some content that might not be appropriate for them".
On Xbox and PlayStation, parents can grant a temporary exception to these rules by inputting their passcode, for example if the child tries to watch a movie rated higher than what the parental controls allow, but the parent is present and says it's OK. For this reason, it's important to have a strong password or code associated with the parent's account.
Parents can also set an allowance that lets their children buy games or spend money on in-game transactions without giving them unlimited access to the family credit card. Furthermore, they can choose to restrict access to websites through the console, and decide how children can interact with friends or strangers online.
Xbox One also offers a "screen time" feature that can let parents determine when and for how long the console can be played.
Managing where they are surfing
The Internet is a powerful learning tool. It provides a world of information that is instantly available 24/7. However, the wide-ranging and anonymous nature of the Internet brings with it risks—from explicit or inappropriate content to predators lurking in chat rooms and using instant messaging services. Due to the Web’s potential dangers, many service providers offer free tools and software to help restrict certain types of content and features to keep young Web users safe.
Internet service providers (ISPs)
Web providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast offer such free parental control features as the ability to:
- Get a Web activity report that shows you all the Web sites your children visit or attempt to visit. You can check out the sites your kids have visited and block specific sites or types of sites you don’t want them going back to.
- Create unique profiles for different family members with individualized online usage limits. This can be useful if you have children of different ages. One master account can be used to manage the settings of several “subordinate” account users.
- Block access to certain Web tools such as instant messaging, gaming, chat rooms, and message boards, allowing parents to keep better track of what their children are saying and to whom.
- Remotely manage your account with the ability to change parental control settings from any computer with Web access, whether in or outside the home.
- View your child’s online activities as they happen with real-time Web tracking features
- Allow young Web users to request permission to visit unauthorized Web sites for an adult to approve.
- Receive a tamper controls alert if someone other than you tries to change the control settings.
- Set up a timer that limits the amount of time users can spend online.
- View search monitoring results that track the words and phrases your children search for online to help learn about what they are interested in. This way you can find out if they are trying to seek out blocked or inappropriate content.
To get more detailed information about exactly what controls are available to you, and what the system requirements are, the best bet is to contact your service provider directly. To lean more about the different Internet provider options, visit the Safe Families site here.
Parental Controls Internet Browsers and Search Engines
While Internet service providers offer a variety of great parental control options, you can also set up similar controls on the Web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, etc.) level. Most browsers let you restrict access to certain sites or pre-approve a list of sites your child has the ability to access. For example:
Safari users can create child user accounts that let you choose between three levels of Internet access:
- give your children unrestricted access to all sites
- a setting that only blocks access to certain restricted sites
- an option that only lets children access sites you that you have pre-selected. Email and chat features can be set up so that young users can only chat and email with contacts you know and trust. Weekday and weekend computer time limits can be put in place as well.
Firefox and Chrome have no built-in parental control features. But, if your computer uses one of these browsers, you can download extensions such as ProCon (which blocks accidental visits to adult sites), LeechBlock (which sets up time limits for different users), and FoxFilter (which blocks content based on user-defined criteria). To learn more about different extension options, click here.
Search engines like Google and Bing have “safe search” settings that screens for sites that contain explicit sexual content and deletes them from your search results. This can be a great option since kids often stumble upon inappropriate content by accident when searching seemingly innocent terms.
This is not an exhaustive list of the available browser and search options, but is intended to give you an idea of the types of useful features that are available. At the very least, almost all browsers will give you the option of blocking access to restricted sites, whether it’s a feature that’s available out of the box, or if it’s an extension you have to download.