Parental controls can help you stay connected to your children
The time of giving is fast approaching, and you may be thinking of getting your child a phone or tablet, or they may already have them. Either way, how much do you know about setting up devices to protect and monitor your kids?
Unfortunately, no matter how secure your home computer, cell phones, and other gadgets that can access the internet are, you might not always know what your kids have access to when they aren’t at home.
Parental controls are essentially tools that allow parents to set restrictions on their children’s internet use and monitor and control any device connected to the internet and sometimes also on the go. They are a great way of helping to prevent children from accessing unsuitable or age-inappropriate content online, whether via a phone, tablet, computer, gaming console or a TV. But even more than that, they can be an invaluable way to stay connected to your children as they head into the teen years.
A whole new repertoire has been added to the parenting manual. Parents in this tech age have to be actively involved in teaching their kids healthy electronic use, and need to be aware of what their kids are doing online:
- Talk to them in an age-appropriate manner about things that can get them in trouble. This has to include discussions about pornography, sexting, grooming, predation and the possibility that people they chat with online may not be who they seem. These are conversations that need to become a normal part of family life.
- Set up your parental controls, on phones, tablets, gaming consoles and TV’s, but continue to supervise your kids, especially younger kids, and use alerts to have those brave and potentially life-altering conversations.
- Remind your kids not to believe everything they see or read. Many things they see on the internet aren’t true.
- Urge them to talk to you if they view something confusing or that just doesn’t seem right.
- Teach your kids to not post too much personal information about themselves or their activities online, on both gaming and social media platforms, since this information will rarely stay private.
- Have them use screen names that don’t include their real name, email address, age, or other identifying information.
- Warn them about and prepare them for cyberbullying, harassing others online, spreading rumours, or impersonating other kids to send hurtful text messages or emails.
- Allow your kids to only use age-appropriate websites, games and social media apps. Know that app developers are not regulated, and that most social media apps are “real age rated” far higher than 13.
- Encourage real life activities and limit fun screen time to no more than one or two hours a day. This includes time spent watching TV, using a computer, playing video games, or using a tablet or cell phone.
There are many reasons why parents do not install parental controls:
- They believe it will limit their own use of the internet,
- They believe it is an invasion of their child’s privacy,
- They subscribe to the NMK (not my kid) philosophy,
- They have their heads in the sand, hoping like heck that all will be well!
The reality is that even good kids make bad choices. And no child is immune to stumbling upon age-inappropriate content online, contact from strangers and cyberbullying.
Be In Touch, South Africa’s family digital wellness activists, advises parents to think of parental controls for devices as similar to bike helmets and seat belts: a no brainer to keep kids safer and saner when navigating the online highways and byways. Teaching your kids how to use their devices safely and responsibly is like teaching them how to drive. It is a process that involves giving them the knowledge, skills, practice and confidence to go from a fledging learner driver to an independent solo commuter.
Parental controls give parents much-needed and often critical insights into their child’s online life, without which they will be oblivious as to the issues their child needs guidance, mentoring and even some correction on.
Kate Farina, co-founder of Be In Touch, says “Giving a child a device without parental controls is like handing them the keys to the family car and saying “Go for it!”. You can hope and pray that things will turn out okay, but it’s highly likely that they won’t! That’s just the reality of parenting in this tech age. The sooner we deal with it, the better the chances we have of being there for our kids when they encounter online bullying, stranger contact, sexting and pornography, and make decisions that affect their indelible digital footprint.“
Trust, responsibility and making smart choices are the building blocks of good digital citizenship, something we all want our children to attain. But the truth is that every child today is handed a device at a time in their life when their brain is not yet fully developed – a process that takes right up until age 23. During this time, their hormones are raging (literally), and they are physiologically and psychologically not yet able to cope with the number of choices and consequences that come with using the internet. They need parental help. And let’s face it, many adults struggle with their device use and management at times!
Teaching rather than spying
Above and beyond the standard controls built into devices, there are a variety of software products on the market that take parental controls even further, by recording your child’s computer usage including web and search history as well as all of their keystrokes. There are also services that allow you to track your child’s location via their smartphone and set up geo-fencing notifications that alert you when your child leaves a given area on the map.
So, is there a difference between monitoring your kid’s online activities, and spying on them?
Common Sense Media, an international online safety NGO, promotes the philosophy of using parental controls openly and honestly in partnership with your kids, not as a stealth spying method.
Children finding creative ways to bypass device restrictions is exactly the kind of creative problem solving that we encourage in other areas of their lives. The conundrum is that if parental controls are not part of a parent-child agreement, they will force kids to be even more secretive about what they are doing online in the first place.
This begs the tough question about which is the better scenario for parenting your child: Would you rather your children be discovering the world in front of you where you can have conversations about what they are seeing to support and frame their understanding? Or would you rather they are discovering the world in secret where you are not around to provide the kind of guidance that will help them make meaning of what they find?
If you decide to use parental controls, it’s essential that they go hand in hand with ongoing conversations that build trust and develop your child’s ability to make smart choices and take responsibility. Besides putting fences up online to stop your kids going into online areas that they shouldn’t, or helping your kid to manage their screen time, using parental control alerts as bridges to stay connected to your child is the most important reason for having the controls in place.
Be In Touch advises that issues that are spotted and alerted by parental controls should be seen and used as conversation starters, to boost rather than undermine the trust in your relationship with your children. If used correctly and consistently, they can help you immensely with your all-important job these days of teaching and guiding your children as they go online. If you know what challenges and dilemmas they are facing online, you can help them make smarter choices, understand the consequences of bad choices, and take responsibility for their actions. If you don’t know what is going on online, you simply won’t be there for them when they need you most.
Which parental controls are best for your family?
Besides parental control settings on phones, tablets, gaming consoles and TVs themselves, there are various free options available to help control, filter and monitor devices. Screen Time (iOS) and Google Family Link (Android) are great examples that will give parents of younger kids basic screen time and web filtering functionality.
Once kids start using YouTube and social media apps however, a full featured third-party parental control option will need to be added.
These are not free options, but the cost gives you:
- More sophisticated device monitoring,
- Better visibility as to how and when your kids are using their devices,
- Alerts on key stuff you need to know about that could impact their safety or mental health,
- Talking points to use in guiding and mentoring your child as they learn to navigate their online world through trial and error, and
Greater peace of mind.
The choice of parental controls, which may be an over-layering of a few options, depends on the age of your kids and what you are looking for as a parent for your family. Be In Touch has prepared this summary of some options for parents to consider:
Which parental controls are best for your family?
Article written for Discovery Health Mental Health Information Hub