Parenting with Technology

Successfully navigating parenting paradoxes in the technological landscape that is modern life.

Using the Tools We Have, Part 5: Routers, Hacks, and Third Party Apps

Throughout our tour of Parental control, there have been many tools, and solutions from your hardware manufacturer that we have looked at, but the hardware that is most overlooked when trying to protect your kids online is their actual connection to the internet itself.  Your modem and router are the actual contact point where your kids hit the web.  Why not try to employ their help in securing your child’s device also?  For years I have considered this the only true choke point for data in your home.  It doesn’t matter who made the devices your kids use or what restrictions and parental controls those have if your kids devices just don’t connect, if there is no internet access for them inside the home, then they are safe from online threats. Some may call this a short-sighted approach, and if the child has a phone with a data plan then cutting their WiFi is a less than perfect solution, but in conjunction with other controls, managing internet access is a great first line of defense.  For most kids under the age of 8, just shutting the WiFi off at night is the single most useful first step you can take to help them stay device free after hours.  Once they are older, it is still a good way to keep the honest people honest, as my dad would say.  It makes it impossible for them to “accidentally” have internet access when they are not allowed to.  The simplest way to restrict use after hours it to just put the modem or router on a coffee timer.  That was my solution 14 years ago when my daughter, then 3, got her first device.  If you still need access yourself after hours, buy a cheap extra router, connect your kid’s devices to it and put it on the timer, leaving your router on.  Granted, this is a very low tech “hack” if you will, and I will dive into much higher tech, and higher cost, solutions in just a moment, but I wanted first to present the notion that you don’t have to be a tech wizard to block your kid’s internet.  The benefit of taking this one little first step is, if your kids are using the internet after hours, you don’t have to have a discussion about how it happened, you don’t need second chances, just tell them up front that the internet shuts off at a specific time, like 8 pm, and if you catch them trying to use it after that, they get some predetermined punishment, like loss of the device for a preset amount of time.  In my house, I said the devices would go away for a week the first time, a month the second and gone for good the third.  Then I made sure to follow thru with that.  Follow thru is always the hardest part of all of this.  Stay firm, its worth it.

Ok, so now we know that a little creativity and a $10 coffee timer or smart plug is all you need to start childproofing your home internet connection.  Let’s look at some better, smarter options for handling this.  The first one, is simple and follows the line of the last few steps, look at what you already have.  Does your router support and provide any of this functionality itself?  Many do.  Apple airports do have many settings built in, from network separation of guest access to restricting access times.  Those features change often and are worth checking out.  If you have questions regarding your routers capabilities, check with the manufacturer.  For me, the best solution after using coffee timers then upgrading to smart plugs and built-in router controls was to upgrade my home wireless to a smart mesh network.  I usually don’t state name brands here, but in this case, there is really only one that is this good and is this easy to set up.  I am not affiliated with them, and am not getting paid for this, but in my home, EERO is the choice.  It is easy to set up, allows me to set a family network, with many members, each one with specific devices assigned to them.  After that is done, not only do we have a really good network, my kids devices are assigned to that child’s profile and I can set rules based on each individual.  This is awesome because it is ‘set and forget’, you don’t have to continually micromanage it.  Also, unlike most solutions, it assigns the devices based on MAC address, not device name, so even if my kids try to work around it with creative solutions like wiping and reloading their device, or just renaming it, the mesh still imposes their rules on each of their devices.  What is also great about this solution is, I can set each of their profiles to have different rules, ie: my 11 year old gets internet till 9pm, but the younger boys don’t.  The Xbox and Apple TV are on a separate profile I set and named accordingly so that neither have access after 7 pm except on Friday and Saturday when it goes till 8 for the Xbox and 11 for the Apple TV.  Also, the EERO system continually self monitors and self heals, so if you are in an area like mine where even the best cable internet is sketchy at best, you don’t have to manually reset the router several times a day to keep connected, like we used to have to do with a standard router.  The last great thing about the EERO solution is, I can open an app and pause or restart anyone or everyone’s internet immediately at any time.  This has so many uses I wont try to mention them all, but suffice to say that when I ask Thing Two to help with the dishes and he “cant” because he is doing XYZ on his iPad, I simply swipe open EERO and hit the pause button on Thing Two.  No one else is affected, only him, and as soon as those dishes are done, the internet can un-pause just as easily.  EERO is a great system that I have not found a better solution for yet.  I may someday, and when I do I will let you know, but in my house, EERO is as important to us as the internet it delivers.  Again, full disclosure, I am not an EERO rep, I don’t get paid from them or get free gear, so this is just my own opinion in an attempt to be as helpful as I can and is NOT a solicited or paid promotion. (However, EERO, if you are listening, I am open to suggestions. :))

So far, we have looked just at internet from commercial home wifi, but what about cellular data from the smartphone your kid has?  Well, I can’t speak to a solution from every carrier, but in my house, where our carrier for cellular is AT&T, I have a paid subscription to a service called AccessMyLan that I bought thru my local carrier.  It is a business solution that is designed to let corporations manage the cellular devices that they issue to their employees, but as a parental tool, it is awesome.  It allows me to set data caps on each of my kids cell phones, so they can’t use up the whole plan on streaming and cost us a bunch of extra cash.  It allows me to set time limits so that my kids don’t have cell data active after certain times at night that I can set and change thru my dashboard.  It also lets me set mandatory apps, or block apps that I don’t want my kids to have.  This service is priceless if you have young people with smartphones, and I fully expect other carriers will provide some similar service, just ask.  Personally, if it were the matter of having a new carrier or keeping my current one and this service, I would put up with a ton of grief from my current carrier to keep this service on my account.  Its ability to block cellular traffic including data at the carrier is where it is priceless.  As an app monitoring tool it is fair to weak, options like JAMF which I mentioned in Part Two, or Boomerang which I discuss in a moment are vastly better at monitoring app use and setting or enforcing restrictions on apps or media in apps.  AccessMyLan is worth the money just in having the ability for the cellular network to stop the phone from working after a certain hour.  Also, I have tested it, and even after the phone’s cell is turned off after hours, 911 services do still work, so that paperweight in their pocket after 10 pm can still save a life in an emergency.

That gets us down to the metal, the device itself.  What, other than the factory controls do we have for that?  Well, there are several third-party solutions out there, and I have tried a several, more than I will name here, and so far, only one seems to solve problems where needed, be easy to use and then get out of the way and let the device work without a ton of parental input.  The app is called Boomerang which I have mentioned several times before and, full disclosure here, I was given a free license by the developer to test out, so consider my bias when reading the rest of this.  With that in mind, I will also say that this is hands down the best solution I have tested for my kids, and the only one that I am still using on their Android tablets, (I use it in conjunction with Google FamilyLink).  Boomerang is a third party app. Therefore it can be removed by wiping and reloading the device. (Yes my 11 years old was able to do that) However, when that happened, I was notified by message in the Boomerang app and also by email from Google FamilyLink.  Therefore, even though he was able to retake control of his device, I was able to immediately go and re-assert physical control of said device, so as long as you actively parent, this should not be a deal breaker.  What I like best about Boomerang is its completely granular control.  You really can regulate or restrict each aspect of your child’s internet experience.  I have been able in the past to do this similarly with JAMF software solutions for mobile deployment, but only on iOS devices, and with vastly more work in my opinion.  Boomerang has what I perceive to be a parent first approach to this safety which makes its use much more instant and convenient.  My kids use their devices, they bang into the guardrails that Boomerang lets me put up, and they continue to compute with little or no interference so long as they stay inside the lines so to speak.  One other thing that I find noteworthy is the deep level of control that Boomerang allows parents to have inside certain apps.  Let’s look at YouTube for example.  My kids love to watch gameplay videos, how-to’s, and the like.  I have no issue with them doing this, but inevitably some video is going to have a sidebar option of some other less appropriate content.  We refer to this as the rabbit hole to the weird side of youtube.  In most controls, including iOS restrictions and Google FamilyLink, once you approve the app, they can use it for anything that it does.  In the case of YouTube, you allow the app or the site; then they can see anything on it.  However, with Boomerang, you can restrict videos inside the YouTube app itself based on each video’s content, then bolster that with a comprehensive list of all the videos your child has watched.  It is then very easy for a parent to log in to the parent device, open controls in boomerang for the child in question and restrict or allow YouTube content based on that list.  Boomerang also supports iOS devices, and I have not tested its controls on that platform yet, however, I plan to shortly as having this level of data and control inside my children’s devices is reassuring and refreshing.  It is very nice to see app developers thinking like parents, and very outside the box.

Lastly, I will touch briefly on other Nanny style apps and services.  There are many services that include apps, which profess to give you access to your child’s devices, or social media accounts.  One way to tell if this will be reliable is to look at what they promise.  Do they snoop on your kids and report back to you?  If so, do you want that? Wouldn’t it be more useful if you just train your kids to be responsible?  Also, what good is reporting to you after the fact, wouldn’t it be more useful if they stopped a problem before it happens?  These are my thoughts on this type of parental control/net nanny.  There are many of these out there, and they all promise a lot but deliver very little in the form of real protection.  A few quick ways to know if a product is legit is to look for a few tell-tale signs of weakness.  First, does this app require you’re child’s account login and password to work?  I tested many of these a few years ago, and every one required my child’s login credentials for their Google account or iCloud account.  Any “service” that can only work if it has your child’s password will quit the second your child realizes that and changes their password. (in my case that was one afternoon for my child to realize the app was there on the device and about 20 min to google how to defeat it.)  Second, do these apps offer any kind of limited trial period?  Limited trials have usually meant one of two things to me, either the app is so good that if they don’t limit the trial they may never get paid, or most likely, if they don’t hide the flaws behind the limits you would never want it.  Now granted, on some types of software the first is most likely, but it has been my experience that in the “nanny” types of software, the limits are just there to stop you from discovering the deal breaking drawbacks.  The third and most common sign of a less-than-adequate solution is that hese companies will have pages that try to scare you into “needing” their product.  They will use fear and innuendo to try to persuade you.  They will collect your child’s data if you allow them, and use it to make a very convincing presentation of their “safety” features, and they usually charge around $50 a month.  They use words in their title like “Nanny” and Sherrif.”  If you sign up for the free trial, you will be inundated with spam email touting “The DANGER of this app” or how this other app will “let your child be STALKED.”  Fear is their hallmark but unlike the tools I have highlighted here, and in previous articles, they never offer a real solution.  Try them if you want, but do so with your eyes wide open and understand that NO app is hands-free.  My very first experience with parental control software was with this type (because they are all over the paid part of search engines) and it warned me off parental control software for a long time till I found other solutions on my own.

You have to actively parent your child all the time.  No app will protect your child; they are all just tools. Some are good tools, some are useful, and some are cheap trash, but all are just things you can use as you actively protect your own family, on purpose, your way.  I hope this series has helped you do that in some small way.  If you are looking for other tools, good helpful resources without the fear or bias, check out www.connectsafely.org .  The parent guides and online safety resources housed there are the best I have found so far, and the people putting it together are professionals who seem to have the kids best interests in mind.  No fear mongering, no pressure, just great resources which are written by excellent people who want to help.

Remember, I am a parent, and not perfect.  The descriptions in these guides is not meant to be an end-all guide, it is simply data and thoughts that I have had regarding parental controls and is intended to be used as a STARTING point for your own experiences in this area.  I mean well and try hard, but I am human and prone to error.  Please, share with me your own experiences as we are all in this together, and if we can share and learn and grow thru this parenting journey together, we can all benefit.  Good Luck.

Categories: Kids and Tech, Parenting Thoughts

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