Parental Controls for the Internet and Cell Phones

Shocked 12 year old on computer unsupervised
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Today's teens, tweens, and school-age children are getting more and more technologically sophisticated, very often outpacing what their parents know about these high-tech gadgets.

While for some kids that actually means that they are learning computer languages, creating websites, and even building robots, most others are simply using today's technology to watch videos on YouTube, play MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), or send text messages.

Unfortunately, many of the things your kids can do online and with their cell phones can lead to a lot of trouble if they aren't monitored. From watching porn and other inappropriate video and websites to sexting (sending inappropriate text messages or photographs) and chatting with predators, new technology can lead to new problems.

Cell phones and the internet have even lead to new ways for kids to be bullied: cyberbullying. That doesn't have to mean that your kids can't have a computer or cell phone that is appropriate for them, but you should learn about parental controls that can help protect them as they use the latest high-tech gadgets.

Parental Controls

Parental controls can include built-in parental control software, add-on monitoring software, web content filtering software, and internet blockers. These can usually be set up to block access to a computer or specific websites.

One big problem with parental controls is that many parents only think about setting them up on their home computers, where they know their kids will have access to the internet, but they forget about all of the other gadgets in and around their home that also offer internet access.

While we might not live in an age where everyone's refrigerator has internet access (some already do though), many other gadgets can get your child connected to the internet, such as their:

  • iPad (via WiFi)
  • iPhone and other smartphones
  • Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS (via WiFi)
  • Nintendo Wii, Wii U, and Switch
  • Sony Playstation 4 and PS5
  • Sony PSP (via WiFi)
  • XBox

That can be fun, offering kids access to online games and multiplayer online gaming, but it also allows them to chat with people and many include a web browser. Although parental controls are available for most of these devices, the average parent who doesn't use the device themselves isn't likely to think about turning those controls on.

Before getting one of these devices that is internet-ready or hooking up an internet-ready gaming system to your home network, be sure you know how to turn on any available parental controls.

Internet Parental Controls

Parental control software is built in the latest version of Mac OS and Windows, but can also be purchased as separate programs, which often offer more features and more flexibility.

These include programs such as Bsafe Online, Net Nanny, and Safe Eyes. In addition to this kind of parental control software, other things you can do to keep your kids safe online include:

  • Putting password protection on the computer, so that you have to log your kids on when they want to use the internet.
  • Using parental control software to restrict access to the computer and the internet to times when a parent is home and around to supervise what your kids are doing
  • Restricting access to times when a parent is at home to supervise or use your router to set up specific internet application and gaming access to different computers or internet-ready gaming systems
  • Setting strong privacy settings if your child uses a social networking site, like Facebook, and limit their friends list to people they know
  • Putting the computer and other devices in a common area of the house, so that you can directly supervise what your kids are doing
  • Asking your internet service provider (ISP) about filtering software that may be available to you
  • Reviewing what kind of access to the internet your kids will have when visiting friends and family members

Be aware that without parental controls, kids can hide their tracks by clearing private data from the internet browser they are using, including the browsing history, cache, and cookies.

In addition to general warnings about protecting kids from "the internet," parents should be aware of some specific things that can cause trouble, including:

  • Illegal file-sharing programs: Through specific programs and sites, such as Gnutella, Bit Torrent, and Kazaa, etc., kids illegally download music, movies, and other content.
  • Social network sites: Many kids use these social network sites, such as Twitter and Instagram, to post personal information and photos, which predators can use to contact your child.
  • IM and chat: In addition to texting on their cell phones, many kids use instant messaging (including Kik and other apps) and chat rooms (such as iChat, Yahoo Messenger) to talk with their friends, and unfortunately, sometimes predators who pose as kids. Inappropriate chats can be an especially big problem in MMORPGs, where many players are in their 20s and 30s.
  • Video chat: Kids have also started using video chat rooms, including the popular Chatroulette, which matches users with strangers to chat with and is reported to include a lot of people engaged in inappropriate behaviors while on their webcams.
  • Web videos: Kids on the internet usually quickly find YouTube. Unfortunately, there are plenty of videos on YouTube and other video sites that are not appropriate for kids.

Cell Phone Parental Controls

Although much of the focus concerning internet dangers has been on computers, few parents seem to realize that many of today's cell phones are basically mini-computers when it comes to the kind of access they provide to the internet. Take, for example, the iPhone, which includes an e-mail application, web browser, and an application to watch videos on YouTube.

Kids can also use it to send text messages, take and send each other photos, and of course, talk. So, how do you supervise and protect your kids when they are using a smartphone, especially when it has access to the internet?

The first thing you should do is learn how to turn on and use whatever parental controls are included with the cell phone, however, limited they may be.

This might include parental control software that is actually part of the cell phone and others that can be added as features of your cell phone carrier. AT&T, for example, offers the Secure Family app that allows you to restrict when a phone can be used, block or allow certain numbers that your child can send/receive calls and text messages to and from, and restrict inappropriate content.

Verizon, T-Mobile (Family Allowances and Web Guard), and other cell phone carriers offer similar services. Many cell phone carriers also have services to let you locate your child at any time if they have a supported phone.

For example, the Verizon Family Locator service (formerly called Chaperone) will let you view your child's location and can even send you a text message when they arrive or leave a certain location, such as school or a friend's house. AT&T and Sprint (Sprint Family Locator) offer similar services.

Did you know that you can monitor your teen's text messages too? While there is mobile spy software that you can secretly install on your child's iPhone or Windows Mobile-based smartphones that monitor text messages and phone calls, cell phone carriers don't provide this service themselves, no matter what some parents may report.

Spying on your kids is very rarely a good idea, though, and if you use this type of software, you should actually let your teen know that you might be reading some of their texts or emails as a condition of having the phone.

If you don't trust your child to use their phone, then they either shouldn't have a phone, you should turn off the cell phone's internet access or ability to send text messages, or get them a basic phone that doesn't have these types of features until they earn your trust.

Best Parental Controls

Unfortunately, no matter how secure you have your home computer, cell phones, and other gadgets that can access the internet, you might not always know what your kids have access to when they aren't at home.

So, the best parental controls are an active parent that teaches their kids healthy electronic use, talks about the dangers of new technologies, and is aware of what they are doing. Before getting your kids a smartphone that allows them to send and receive email, text, or gives them access to the internet, you take the following steps:

  • Talk to them in an age-appropriate manner about things that can get them in trouble, including a discussion about sexting consequences, viewing inappropriate websites, photos, and videos, and the possibility that people they chat with online may not be who they seem, and then continue to have conversations about these topics and ask your kids questions about what they are doing online from time to time.
  • Set up your parental controls, but then continue to supervise your kids, especially younger kids, as they use their cell phone and computer.
  • 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, including places like Instagram 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 cyberbullying, harassing others online, spreading rumors, or impersonating other kids to send hurtful text messages or emails.
  • Allow your kids to only use age-appropriate websites and games. For example, Facebook requires kids to be at least 13 years old to register, and many of the popular games that young kids like to play that allow internet access are rated "T" for "Teen" or "M" for "Mature" and should only be played by adults.
  • Encourage RL (real life) activities and limit screen time (which should include time watching TV, using a computer, playing video games, or using an iPod, cell phone, or other media device) to no more than one or two hours a day, as internet activities can be quite addicting.

And know what they are doing on the internet.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.