Most Recent Update: June 10, 2020
In today’s world, young people are online via laptops, tablets, smartphones, gaming equipment, and the like for multiple hours each day. They rely on internet-enabled devices in the classroom, while doing their homework, when they are socializing, when they are playing, and for basic communication with friends and family. Unfortunately, these devices also provide access to an almost endless array of inappropriate content and contacts.
So what’s a parent to do?
As always, the most powerful and effective tool of parenting is communication. So the best way to keep your kids safe in the digital universe is to continually sit down with them and engage in age-appropriate discussions about life online. Find out how they use their digital devices and talk about this usage in a rational, nonjudgmental way. If there are behaviors you would prefer they not engage in, tell them, and let them know why you want them to stay away from those activities.
The next most effective way to keep your children safe (or at least ‘safer’) online is to install a protective software product. Before you do this, you need to discuss it with your kids. If you fail to do so and simply install the protective software in secret, they will know, they will resent what you did, and they will actively find ways to circumvent the software (using friends’ devices, purchasing and using a device in secret, restoring factory settings, downloading new browsers, etc.)
The simple truth is your children are far savvier about technology than you are, so you need them to buy into the use of protective software. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money. This means you need to talk to them about your desire to install a protective software product, and then you need to involve them in the process of determining which settings are most appropriate for them.
If you invite your children into the protection process, giving them input on what should be blocked and what should be allowed, what should be monitored and what should not, and how to best implement other protective features, they will understand that you don’t want to limit them or spy on them, you simply want to keep them safe in an age-appropriate way. When they understand this, they’re a lot more likely to accept (and possibly appreciate) the protections you want to provide.
Protective Features to Look For
Not all protective software products are created equally, nor are they intended to protect the same populations. The primary features parents should look for are filtering and monitoring capabilities. However, in the smartphone era, secondary features have become increasingly important. At the very least, parents should look for the following features:
- Customizable Filtering and Blocking: Nearly all protective softwares offer some degree of filtering and blocking. Often, they have preset levels ranging from settings appropriate for young children to settings meant for teens and adults. The better products allow customization with whitelisting and blacklisting of specific sites. IMPORTANT: You want a filter/blocker that analyzes web pages in real time. What this means is that your child could access a fan fiction site without any trouble, but he or she would still be blocked from any eroticized stories on the site. You also want to be able to filter/block video games based on ESRB rating.
- Monitoring and Reporting: We do not recommend spying on your children, but we do believe that monitoring and reporting features are useful tools of parenting. Generally, protective software products give you reports at regular intervals, letting you know how much time your child spent online, where he or she went online, and who he or she interacted with. Typically, if desired, you can receive a real-time notification when your child attempts to use his or her digital device in a prohibited way. Some products will allow you to monitor texts, downloads, uploads, search engine requests, instant messages, apps, usernames and passwords, etc. If you are going to use some or all of these more intrusive features, you need to let your children know about that in advance.
- Time Management: Time management features allow you to set an amount of time or certain times of day when your child can (and can’t) use his or her devices. The best products can be customized to allow or prohibit the use of certain programs and apps at various times of day. This way, you can stop your child from playing video games for a few hours but he or she could still be online doing homework.
- Location Tracking: Young people carry their phones with them everywhere they go. Recognizing this, most protective software products now come with location tracking. So, if your child says he or she is going to the library to study but takes a wrong turn at ends up at the skate park, you’ll know about it. This is another relatively intrusive feature that you should talk about with your child in advance.
- App Limits: There’s an app for everything these days – games, text chat, video chat, social media, making reservations, viewing porn, sexting, flirting, hooking up, etc. There are even apps that hide or disguise other apps. So what might at first glance look like an innocuous video game could actually be a porn site. Most apps are fine for most kids, but plenty of apps are not. You will want a protective software that blocks access to inappropriate apps.
- Easy to Install and Use: The best protective software products are easy to install, easy to customize, and easy to modify as your children get older and require different limits. You also want to be able to globally configure the software, meaning you put the settings in one device and they automatically transfer to your child’s other devices.
- Compatibility/Licensing: Not all protective software products work on every digital device. In fact, many are quite limited (and therefore not recommended, as kids usually have a wide array of devices). It is important to make sure the product you buy works on all of your kids’ devices. It is also important to see how many devices the license covers. Ideally, you want to cover all of your kids’ equipment with only one license.
There are numerous products designed to protect young people in the online universe. As stated above, these products are not created equally.
- Net Nanny. Net Nanny Family Protection Pack costs $54.99 per year for up to five devices, and $89.99 per year for up to twenty devices. The software is usable on Windows, Android, Mac, iOS, and Kindle devices. Net Nanny offers all the features parents look for, including social media monitoring, and it is easily customizable.
- Qustodio Parental Control. Qustodio costs $54.95 per year for up to five devices, $96.95 per year for up to ten devices, and $137.95 per year for up to fifteen devices. The software is usable on Windows, Android, Mac, iOS, and Kindle devices. Like Net Nanny, Qustodio offers all the features parents look for. It is also easy to use.
Other Good Options
- WebWatcher. WebWatcher is another solid program, generally on par with Net Nanny and Qustodio. However, WebWatcher is purchased a la carte, so to speak, meaning users pay by the device, which can get expensive, costing approximately $10 per month per device. WebWatcher is usable on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Chromebook devices.
- Circle with Disney. Circle with Disney costs $129 per year for an unlimited number of devices. Circle includes a device and an app. The device (a small white box) connects to your Wi-Fi router to manage all devices on your home network. The app is used to manage phones and other portable devices. Circle has the same general features as other options on this list, except reporting features are somewhat limited in comparison to Net Nanny and Qustodio. Circle works with Windows, Android, Mac, iOS, and Kindle devices.
- Kaspersky Safe Kids Premium. Kaspersky Safe Kids Premium is a decent option, charging $14.99 per month for an unlimited number of devices. It offers the same basic features as Net Nanny and Qustodio. However, it’s not as intuitive or easy to use, and its features are limited on Mac and iOS devices.
- Norton Family Premier. Norton Family Premier costs $49.99 per year for an unlimited number of devices. It offers the same basic features as other products on this list, and it is relatively easy to install and use. However, it does not work on Mac operating systems, so if you’re an Apple family, this is not the right product.