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Are Parental Controls an Invasion of Our Kids Privacy?

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The internet is a fantastic place for kids. They can learn, share and socialise with endless possibilities. They will however inevitably be exposed to dangers so us, as parents, may want to guide what they can have access to, to limit their exposure to such online threats. Much like we wouldn’t let young children play in the park unattended, we wouldn’t want our youngest roaming the internet completely unwatched either.

This is where parental control software can help. It allows you to influence how your kids use the internet, what they can access, between which times they can use it and how often they use it. Some parents love it and some believe it can be too invasive. It’s a tricky decision which depends on a number of things like the child’s age, personality, relationship with parents, their use of technology, parental style and much more. Ultimately, it’s up to you as the parents to make this call, all I will do here is to present you with the facts so you can make an informed choice.

McAfee found that 90% of our younger generations believe their parents trust them to do what is right online, but 45% would still change their online behaviour if they knew their parents were watching. This demonstrates that if you just loaded the software onto your family devices (and your kids knew it was there), even if you never checked it again you’ve already drastically improved their online behaviour.

Benefits of Parental Controls

Parental controls can help prevent all kinds of cyber threats from getting access to your children, such as;

  • Your kids accessing adult-only content such as religious extremism, pornography and drug related sites
  • Developing anti-social gaming habits or gambling addiction
  • Sexual predators getting access to your kids
  • Cases of cyber bullying
  • In rare cases, advanced warning of psychological issues developing (self-harming, suicidal thoughts, etc.)

Parental controls do remove the need to have you physically sitting over your kids as they browse the web or needing to have a family computer situated in a public place within your home.

How does it work & which is best?

There are two types of parental control;

1. Built-in Operating Systems Controls (free but technical to setup)
2. Parental Control Software (£15-40 and very easy to setup)

You’ll want to pick the method that best strikes the balance between safety and invasion of privacy for your family. Read on to determine the pros and cons of both.

1. Built-in Operating Systems Controls

There are default controls that most major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android) come with as standard. Typically, their functionality is basic and can be trickier to setup when compared to bespoke parental control software. However, they are free so if the pennies are tight and you’re not afraid to roll your sleeves up a little, it could be a good option.

For Windows 10, you’ll need to sign-up for a Family Safety account. This provides the parent with basic website filtering, email exchange monitoring, GPS location tracking, usage time limits and some simplistic alerting. MacOS provides a slightly more comprehensive service and is accessed via the ‘Parental Controls’ pane in the System Preferences part of Settings. It does require you to invest a fair amount of time tailoring the controls to each child as you need to set up separate accounts for each child. So, if you have more than one kid, you’ll most likely want a bespoke parental control software…

2. Parental Control Software

For just £3 per month or £35.95 per year, you can use one standout product called Qustodio. It has considerable pedigree in the field of online safety and provides a very intuitive interface for parents to use. It is much simpler to use and quicker to setup than the OS controls mentioned above. But really what makes it stand out is the fact it provides choice - it allows parents to strike that important balance between parental oversight and invading privacy.

It’s modular in its setup so you can build a product specific for your family. Key features of Qustodio include;

  • Multi-Device Monitoring: monitors your child’s activity on all their devices, including smart phones and tablets.
  • Website blocking: Qustodio has 26 filter categories that blocks things like pornography, gambling, violence, drugs, alcohol and extremist sites.
  • Social Media Monitoring: did you know a lot of kids have two versions of their social media accounts? One that is real and one specifically designed to be visible to their parents so they can’t see what they’re really up to! Parental control software will identify where kids are using tactics like this and notify you. Qustodio makes sure your kids post appropriate content and observe how others interact with others, what they say and what others are sharing with your child. If you find someone bullying or sharing inappropriate content with your child, you can block that person across multiple social media platforms.
  • Screen Time Control: you can set the times of day or durations your kid is allowed to use the internet. Qustodio lets you create individual child profiles so everyone in the family can have their own time schedule, very useful if you have kids a few years apart.
  • Online Gaming: if your kids play a lot of games online through the web browser (not through a secondary device like an Xbox or PlayStation) then you can control what types of games your children can download or play and also see the chat and instant messages they have with other gamers. You can block all online game sites (perhaps as a temporary punishment) or you can select specific games they are allowed to use.
  • GPS Locator: it has a basic GPS locating feature so it can tell you if your kid is where they should be and can help retrieve a lost device. Whilst this functionality isn’t as comprehensive as some of the specific GPS tracking products I recommended in the Geo-tracking chapter, if you think it meets your needs it means you wouldn’t need to have both.
  • Alerting: lets you define alerts and customise how and when they are sent to you as well as how ‘critical’ each should be considered. It provides some decent dash boarding for you to see summaries of their online activity, including any banned sites they’ve tried to access and the search terms they have used when searching for online stuff.
  • Anti-Cyberbullying Monitoring: helps identify potential cases of cyberbullying and notifies you when the offender tries to contact your child. Other products tend not to have this feature.
  • Panic Button: you can enable a panic button on your kid’s smartphone. If they ever feel in danger, either someone following them, they’re getting bullied or in a fight, they can press the panic button and you will get a text alert with their location.

The only real drawback is that other products feature live chat and telephone customer services support, which Qustodio does not provide. If you need to contact them you can send them an email via their online web form. If for whatever reason you don’t like Qustodio, Norton Family or Surfie might be good alternatives to try.

When do parental controls begin to breach kids’ privacy?

There are more ‘thorough’ monitoring products on the market than Qustodio, such as KidLogger or mSpy. These products provide more covert and secretive monitoring capabilities such as recording each and every keystroke on the keyboard your child makes. You can therefore capture detailed chat history, email conversations as well as things like passwords to all their accounts, phone call logging and access to WhatsApp messages.

For most parents, these types of products venture into the realms of privacy invasion, so I don’t recommend them for the masses. In some rare scenarios they may well be a viable option. For example, children with learning difficulties may need an added level of monitoring, or if you suspect your child is partaking in criminal activity or if their physical or emotional wellbeing is at risk. Outside of these exceptions, I don’t recommend them…imagine the family cataclysm if they caught your covert spying of them! It would undoubtedly have more damaging effects than it’s worth. At the very least they’ll be resentful and likely start hiding things from you which is a backwards step when it comes to protecting children online.

"What do I do if my kid circumvents our parental controls?"

My answer is simple – if they have circumvented parental controls they have now matured beyond the use of technical controls and the best response is not more controls, but to educate them so they can start to self-manage their own online risk. It is of course possible to implement more technical controls, like OpenDNS which makes parental controls more rigorous and slightly harder to circumnavigate. But if they are technically capable enough to circumvent basic parental controls, they will undoubtedly only see this as another challenge.

It may also reinforce an underlying message that you don’t trust them. So, depending on their age, online habits and level of risk, this might be a good point to start giving them more autonomy online and use education as the best means of keeping them safe. See here on Educating Your Kids for my recommendations on how best to approach cyber education for your kids and teenagers.

So yes, parental controls can be useful, especially with younger children but do be careful to not invade their privacy. If you do need to use parental controls, use something like Qustodio that can be used in a modular way…adding extra functionality as and when you need it. This goes a long way to help balance the need for oversight with the need to maintain their privacy.

Hope this clears up some of the most common questions around parental controls. If you have questions, leave me a comment and I’ll ensure I get back to you soon!

I’m always eager to hear what you guys think!

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