Parental Controls – My “Hashkafa” and What Works for Our Family
I grew up in the age of BBSes … bulletin board systems. Back in my day, it took about 20 minutes on a 2400 baud modem to download a single 640×480 pixel image in 256 colors. I remember the first time I did it – it was a vivid picture of a parrot and it was amazing to see it on the computer screen. Back then, some BBSes had adult sections and most required age verification to grant access. Sure, we figured it out but it was usually akin to having an adult by alcohol or cigarettes for you. Today, it’s ubiquitous, easily available just by clicking on something by mistake … let’s just get past the “no censorship for anyone – how could you?” drama and acknowledge that lots of this stuff isn’t good for anyone to see, ever for a whole host of reasons that is beyond the scope of this post and get down to it.
True story – when one of my kids was 10 years old, an Amazon Kindle before I set filters on it was used to access illicit content within five minutes. The child was curious and I didn’t set it up fast enough. There’s a story in The Gemora, mesecta Beitzah, about how a rooster on the other side of a river will find a board to cross the river and you can presume ever hen is … you get the idea. In another story, a Tanna was protecting women on a second floor and said had they not pulled up the ladder … yeah, you get the idea too. It’s male nature.
Free software that is supposed to block devices doesn’t work. I tried a bunch of them and either I or one of my kids could find a way around them. If you want good internet filtering, you have to pay for it. Prove me wrong. I challenge my kids to get around blocks so I can learn and they’ve always found ways … even the blocks on school Chromebooks aren’t foolproof. Something as simple as Google Translate works as a proxy to open almost any website (hence, I block it at home…)
Device by device blocking is weak. A new device gets in the house … a friend’s phone and they want access to your WiFi, etc, and all bets are off. You may know what devices your kids have, but your kid’s friends parents probably don’t. Think you have a device locked down? Don’t bet on it. Access logs are also only so good because not everything gets logged. Networks are complicated with many, many protocols and ways to get around things. Any computer has vulnerabilities and when you have eight different devices, a kid will find the weak point on the one device like a velociraptor will find the weak point in the security fence and chase down Jeff Goldbloom. One thing I’ve learned – kids are really, really resourceful (at least my kids and it’s probably my fault but I’m okay with that). If I can find a way to get around something, they usually can too.
Computers are not locked down and the internet is designed to be open. That’s the reality. Apple is a bit better in this area. I run Linux – parental control just stinks. Google devices are the worst – Android is open. The Play store is filled with apps that, designed for it or not, can be used to get around any blocks you have. Chromebooks used to have a parental supervision mode but they discontinued it one day with no replacement – it’s just anti-Google to have “controls” on the internet I suppose.
You have to monitor what your kids are doing – look at their phone or give their phone regularly to someone who knows what they’re looking at. Keep computers out in the open where you can see the screens, etc.
Centralize the filtering in one place. Solution: Disney Circle. I’m sure there are other options, but with my research and my use for a while now, I can recommend this to you. Disney bought the “Circle” company and now it’s $100 for a Netgear router with it built in and it filters every device on your network but it’s NOT full proof and NOT idiot proof. You have to kind of know what you’re doing or it’s not going to work and may not be the solution for you.
First – here’s how it works:
- Create a profile for every user or group of users. For example, I have one for “parents”, one for “kids”, and one for “devices” (e.g. the printer and the internet radio).
- Each device connected to your internet router is assigned to one of the profiles. You do this using your phone (no web interface available, but this is kind of good because if your kids can’t access your phone, you’re good).
- When a new device is plugged in, you get a notification on your phone. It goes to whatever default group you set and then you can rename the device (e.g. “kid’s friend’s iPhone”) and assign it to a group.
On the surface, that works great. It usually does … but it’s not perfect. Once a computer was connected via a wired cable and WiFi and when the wired cable got disconnected the WiFi took over and the router didn’t even see the computer but it had full unfiltered access to everything! My kid was honest with me (we’ll get to that) and it was fixed. I wouldn’t have known for a while.
The up side is any device that comes into my house has filtering (excepting for the above). It’s a great system – costs ~$100 for the router and $5/mo for the filtering. You can set by category to filter with some presets for “teen” and “young child” and it works with cellular phones too (I’ll get to that too).
The down side is: the logging stinks. It’s not very helpful and shows a whole bunch of extraneous IP addresses (if you don’t know what that is, that’s the point) and random things that websites access. It’s hard to tell what your kid was actually doing by reviewing it. Also, you have to add each website to allow manually on a phone with no way of importing or copying lists between users, etc. It’s not so convenient but is a worthy trade off.
This will depend on your needs and what you want you children to be able to access. There are flip phones and kosher phones with basically nothing but phone features and sometimes texting. Depending on your kid, they’re peers are on Whasapp quite a lot. This stuff can be abused and kids something write stupid things,, but were AOL chat rooms any better and won’t they just say stupid things in person just the same? Teenagers do that.
So my comfort level here, after much thinking, etc, is like this: the phone is a great communication device. Do I want my kids using it for games? Using it for web browsing? Maybe … but no … let’s use it for communication. You want to use group texts to know when the bus is coming? That’s a great idea. You want to play a game? Use the home computer and use it where you can be seen. … because guess what … these games aren’t so innocent either. They also have chat, people also say stupid things, and I know of kids who are using the in-game chat to evade their parents’ monitoring. Nothing it fool proof (giving them no device isn’t either, but I totally get parents who do that – I’m talking about once you decide to give your kid a device).
I started with Disney Circle on a cellular phone – the pro is that it integrates into the same interface and parental controls for the device as you’ve set for home internet. The con is that it does not log or block per app. I find that a huge lack. With unfettered access to an app store, you might as well have no controls. It’s worthless and maybe worse because it’s a feeling of security which just encourages a child to go underground.
Next problem is that it’s almost impossible to prevent an app from being uninstalled. Any app I tried, including Disney Circle and others … I could figure out a way to remove it. It’s how the phones are designed – they don’t want rogue software taking over the phone. You can get Tag to root your phone and install software that can’t be removed by basically rewriting their own operating system, but the software choice they have isn’t my taste. I was unimpressed – basically, you select which apps you want and call them whenever you want to change it but it doesn’t actually filter content.
After playing with a bunch of apps, some simultaneously, the one I’ve stuck with for a while is called ScreenTime. If you’re giving your child access to the internet, use it with Disney Circle. If you’re not, ScreenTime is sufficient – I’ve plain old blocked usage of the web browser entirely, blocked YouTube, blocked … well anything that isn’t a communication tool. Access is granted to Hangouts, messaging, WhatsApp, photos, the camera, his music, email, and educational apps (e.g. learn Hebrew, learn music, learn exercises, learn math) … all the “good” things about a phone. Basically, what people should be using their phones for in my humble opinion. (My five minute a day Hebrew lesson with Drops is great, for example.)
Now here’s the fun part – a little bit of disclosure here … some of this was trial and error. Some of this involved “oh shoot, a kid broke through” followed by “no device for you.” Some of this was being a parent and saying, “I don’t really care if you’re not happy. You’ll live without your beloved Clash of Clans until we figure out what to do.”
Then we reset. I still have one kid who complains about “Daddy, this website is blocked! I can’t do my Gemora studying without it!” etc, etc, and okay, so it’s annoying and I have to manually override a website and allow it. He’ll live.
The other problem is, as mentioned above, there’s really no way to prevent an app from being uninstalled. So … I stole an idea from those people who say “have a contract with your kids before you give them the keys to the car.” I don’t think I’ll do such a ridiculous thing when my kids drive, but ask me again when my oldest is 17. So … I gave my kids a contract. You want a phone? Great. You want to try and break my blocks? You win. I give up. You can. The state of internet filtering stinks. Billions are put into just the opposite with a tiny fraction of a percent, barely noticeable, in protecting us from ourselves.
The contract basically says this:
- We’re trusting you. We know the internet can be good and bad. Use it for the good.
- Your phone is a great communication and education tool. Use it for that. Don’t use it for other stuff.
- You have parental controls on it – it monitors what apps you use, shares a daily report of your usage with us and gives a notification if it receives no data for a day (e.g. it’s been uninstalled).
- I know you can uninstall the app and I know there are ways around it. I’ve found them and you could probably find more. However, we’re trusting you with this responsibility. Oh, and by the way – if you ever remove the parental controls or get around them, you lose your phone for a year.
- Your parents, especially the tech saavy one, have a right to inspect your phone whenever we want and you hand it over on the spot, no questions asked. Our fingerprints can access your phone and keep it that way.
- Location monitoring is on too. Keep it that way so we can see where you are or … see end of rule 4. It’s not to stalk you, but rather it’s a great safety feature and you can see our location too at any time.
It’s been almost a year with the above policy, and frankly, it’s the one that’s worked the best so far. ScreenTime gives us daily emails about usage and we don’t ordinarily look at individual conversations so there’s still privacy.
ScreenTime also can block new apps by default and you, as the parent, can approve them or deny access one at a time, set usage hours, etc. At bedtime many apps are disabled but you can set for your preferences. In this manner, new software can be installed but we only approve them if they meet our guidelines.
Modern communication is amazing and a part of life for most people and kids. It’s impossible to filter without trust and communication the old fashioned way – between parents and children. We’ve found the above solution to work the best so far, but it’s not fool proof but it’s at least a) centralized with less points of potential failure, and b) lets the child have a good balance of freedom vs. control.
I leave you with this: a few days ago I decided to try a new web browser called Brave. It’s based on Google’s open source browser but seems to be faster. I was just kind of playing around and noticed an option: “New Private Window with Tor.” Tor is something I last played with maybe 10 years ago – it makes your internet anonymous by bouncing through other computers on the Tor network. It was slow, difficult to setup, and impossible to use even for a tech guy. Totally not worth it. Well, not anymore! It’s built into this web browser and flawlessly got around even the most stringent filters I’ve tried! I looked up how to block it and it’s nearly impossible. Logging usage is even more impossible. Instead, the suggestions are to not let people install new software on your computers!
On a Chromebook and Android phone there’s the App Store. You can download the Android version even there and get around all blocks. Disable your App Store with Disney Circle and open it up only when you’re with your kid to see what they install. The Apple store appears to have it too.
I welcome your comments and (polite) critique and discussion below. Oh, and please don’t tell my teenagers about this web browser!