teens looking at a laptop

In today’s world, kids use digital devices almost constantly. If they’re not gaming on a pad or laptop, they’re texting and posting to social media on their smartphones. Or maybe they’re looking at porn, or cyberbullying, or chatting with potentially dangerous strangers, or whatever. Knowing this, almost every parent, educator, and childcare professional worries about the “who, what, when, where, and why” of kids and digital devices. Are they online too long? In the middle of the night? Looking things that are age-inappropriate? Giving out personal information? Etc. And no matter how attentive and loving, adults can’t hover at a child’s side 24/7. It’s just not feasible, what with work and grocery shopping and needing to sleep once in a while. Plus, not many kids will put up with a full-blown helicopter parent anyway.

So what’s a smart parent to do?

Well, in a tech-driven world, as in the real world, good parenting begins with open, honest, ongoing discussions about behaviors that are and are not acceptable. These nonjudgmental, open-ended conversations are the cornerstone of good parenting on any and every topic – homework, friendship, sportsmanship, bullying, chores, the birds and the bees, etc. If parents can’t talk about it with their kids, whatever “it” happens to be at any given moment, their kids will make decisions based on the (often wildly inaccurate) information they get on the street and in the schoolyard. Even worse, they’ll have little to no idea what is and is not acceptable within their family system.

In other words, the fact that your permissive neighbor’s kid is allowed to text at the dinner table, video chat until the wee hours, and look at porn doesn’t mean it’s OK for your child. But your kid doesn’t know that until you make your thoughts clear to him or her. Staying silent and simply assuming your child knows what you think and feel is a very bad idea. After all, kids have minds of their own, and they’re not afraid to use them. So parents need to talk with and listen to their kids, and they need to do that again and again and again until everyone in the family is on the same page.

In addition to nonjudgmental, ongoing conversations, parents who are worried about life in the digital universe can install a “parental control software” on their kids’ digital devices. And this too is an opportunity for open communication, meaning parents should not do this covertly. Instead, they should tell their kids what they want to do and why they want to do it. In other words, parents and children alike need to understand that protective software products are not about spying on kids or trying to control them, they are meant, simply, to protect children from inappropriate content and contacts. No more, no less. As long as kids are not overstepping the family’s mutually agreed upon online boundaries, these softwares are unobtrusive.

In case you didn’t notice, I put “mutually agreed upon” in italics – reiterating the fact that parents need to bring their children into the conversation, asking for and seriously considering their child’s input about the level of filtering/blocking, time constraints on device usage, and parental monitoring and notifications. Kids and parents can also agree on potential overrides that the child controls (knowing that his or her parents will be notified about the override). This means that if it’s the usual nighttime cutoff hour and the child hasn’t finished his or her homework, an override can be used by the child but the parent will be notified and will probably ask why it was needed.

Parents should also understand that not every parental control software is the same. In fact, some are much better than others. When shopping for protective software, parents should consider the following:

  1. Customizable Filtering and Blocking. Nearly all protective softwares have preset filtering levels ranging from settings appropriate for young children to settings appropriate for teens and young adults. Most products also offer customizable filtering, with blacklisting of specific sites/apps that would otherwise be allowed and whitelisting of specific sites/apps that would otherwise be blocked. The best filters are able to analyze page content in real time, which means, for example, they can allow general access to a fan fiction site while blocking access to any erotic stories on that site.
  2. Secondary Filtering and Blocking. In addition to basic filtering and blocking, most products offer secondary features, such as:
    • Profanity filtering, masking, and/or blocking
    • Online search filtering and blocking
    • Video game filtering and blocking based on ESRB rating
    • Social media filtering and blocking
    • App blocking
    • File transfer blocking (preventing the sending and/or receiving of pictures, videos, etc.)
    • Instant message and chat blocking
  3. Time Management. Time management features control when a child can use his or her digital devices, and the total amount of time each day or week that he or she can be online. Some products will allow or prohibit the use of certain programs and apps at various times of day – preventing kids from playing video games after a specific hour, for instance, while allowing them to still be online to finish their homework.
  4. Monitoring and Reporting. Most products monitor a child’s online activity and provide parents with reports on usage, along with real-time alerts if the child uses (or attempts to use) a digital device in a prohibited way. In the best programs these reports are highly customizable, allowing parents and kids to agree on what is and isn’t reported. Options may include:
    • Websites visited
    • Apps used
    • Online searches
    • Downloads
    • Social networking
    • Usernames and passwords
    • IM/chat
    • Email
    • Screenshot playback

    Ideally, reporting is available to parents remotely (accessible via their own computer or phone) at regular intervals, on demand, and via real-time text and email alerts.

  5. Ease of Use. Protective softwares should be easy to install and to customize. Ideally, parents should be able to globally configure the product, establishing settings on all of a child’s devices simultaneously instead of dealing with each machine individually. (There is no point in putting the software on a child’s laptop but not on his or her phone, as phones can now do anything a laptop or pad can do.) The best softwares offer free 24/7 tech support via email, phone, and live chat.
  6. Compatibility. Not all softwares work on every digital device. In fact, many are quite limited (and therefore not recommended for protecting kids, who usually have a wide array of devices). It is important to make sure a product works on all of your kids’ devices before you purchase it. 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.

As of now, the best products, in my opinion, are Net Nanny, Qustodio Parental Control, and WebWatcher. The differences between these three products are minor, and any of the three will work quite well for almost any family. Each offers superb filtering and blocking, excellent time management features, and very good monitoring and reporting features. (Parents can check the product websites for full listings of features.) Net Nanny costs $39.99 per year for one device, $59.99 for up to five devices, $89.99 for up to ten devices. Qustodio costs $44.95 per year for up to five devices, $79.95 for up to ten devices. WebWatcher is more expensive, at $99.95 per year for each digital device. All three programs are compatible with a wide array of digital equipment, including Windows, Android, Mac, and iOS devices. (For more detailed reviews of these and other parental control products, visit this page on my website, where I provide annually updated assessments.)

It is important to note that no parental control software is infallible. Most kids can find a way around even the best of these products if they really want to. Or they can use a friend’s non-restricted device. Or they can buy a new device and use it in secret. As such, protective softwares should not be looked at as enforcers of parental will. Instead, they should be viewed as a tool of effective parenting, best used in conjunction with an ongoing series of open-minded, nonjudgmental conversations about the healthy use of digital technology.