Continuing the Conversation Blog
The Day an Innocent Search Turned Up an Image My Son Can’t Erase: 5 Tips to Keep Your Kids Safe
Thursday, April 20, 2017
When my oldest child was in 6th grade, he searched “deforestation” for a project on a school computer and saw a pornographic image. I assumed my kids were safe using the computers at school, but even with good filters inappropriate things still get through. My son was unprepared for what he saw and I was sad and angry that I was unable to protect him. But his experience became a reality check for my husband and I.
It wasn’t that we had been passive about protecting our kids online, (I knew that 82% of kids are exposed to inappropriate material online before age 11), but the choices were overwhelming. What filter do we need? Are there settings for that? Do we buy something or find a free kid-friendly browser? Explicit search results, restricted access, adult content blockers, questionable activity – it all felt like too much and so very necessary all at the same time. I wasn’t even sure where to start.
I’ve been researching and implementing controls ever since. Today, my kids, ages 12 and 15, use the internet daily for homework and recreation. And, as the internet has developed and changed, so have our parental control options. Although we can’t protect our kids from everything online, I want to help other parents, like you, to get started by sharing some of what I’ve learned.
Some browsers offer filter options, like blocking certain sites that you specify. On Apple IOS products (like iPhones), for example, you can set parental restrictions in “settings” for each device that will impact Safari searches, explicit material, as well as, age settings for books, music, and videos.
Search engines also offer some content filters. Google, for example, offers a “safe search” filter and recently came out with Family Link, which allows parents to create a free Google account for any kids under 13, as well as, monitor and manage their kids’ online activity. You can also set explicit material restrictions on YouTube or get the YouTubeKids app, which automatically filters out adult content.
There are many services you can purchase that provide content blocking. Circle with Disney is a popular, but expensive one, designed to manage devices connected to your home WiFi. However, it’s my understanding that if your child leaves your home their protection does not go with them. – Since writing this article, Circle with Disney has come out with Circle Go, a paid subscription that takes all of the settings your kids' devices have at home with Circle and extends them to 4G LTE and any other Wi-Fi network they join. -- Net Nanny also has good reviews, but price may be an obstacle.
In our home, we use Qustodio. Their prices are reasonable and we have had positive results. Their plans cover both desktop computers, as well as, IOS devices. So, even when your child leaves the house you know their device is still being protected. It does not require that you use a special browser and you can monitor activity and set different levels of content blocking depending on what your child needs.
Prior to Qustodio we used Accountable2you, which offers real-time text alerts for questionable activity, but does not have a content filter option. It was useful to monitor the types of things the kids were visiting online and it sent alerts when something inappropriate was accessed, but it didn’t allow us to block or restrict content, which is ultimately why we left.
In general, I would say there are no “safe” apps, so educate yourself before downloading. My daughter uses YouTubeKids instead of regular YouTube because it filters out the adult content, so she can safely search for and view kid-friendly videos. Some music streaming apps offer parental restrictions, like Apple Music. But many do not. You can’t restrict content on Spotify, for example, but they do offer many “clean versions” of explicit songs. Do your kids know how to navigate that?
There is a minimum age requirement of 13 for many social media sites and apps (thanks to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), but many kids bypass the age restriction by simply registering with a false birth date (often with a parent’s permission).
Although some apps, like Instagram and Musically, have privacy account settings so only friends your child approves can follow them and see their posts, there is no way to control or restrict what your child sees on public accounts or who they “follow.” An innocent search or hashtag click can bring up images they should not see.
You can set rating restrictions on some movie streaming services. Netflix, for example, allows you to set a password for viewing movies and TV shows over a specific rating you choose. In our home, we have a password set for movies PG-13 or higher, so our kids have to ask before watching. Or you can try VidAngel, a subscription service which allows you to connect your streaming services and filter movies and television shows for inappropropriate or unwanted content.
Not sure if a movie or TV show is okay to watch? Pluggedin.com and Commonsensemedia.org are great resources for movies, music, and books. Their reviews categorize and describe content, like violence, sex, alcohol/drugs, etc. so you can make wise decisions about appropriateness for your kids (or when to have your remote handy for skipping parts).
Guiding our kids through the digital age is challenging since the internet is ever-changing. It’s difficult to stay up to date on the latest options for protecting kids online.
Here are 5 tips you can begin doing today:
- Research the best internet filter for your family and install it on every device. Utilize the free filters and adult content restrictions available through your browser and devices. Keep all privacy settings up to date.
- Set private passwords that only mom or dad know to keep kids from unmonitored use of computers and personal devices, as well as, for movie streaming services. Kids should never have unmonitored or unfiltered access to movies, TV shows, apps, or the internet.
- Teach your kids about privacy and anonymity online. Kids should never provide a full name when creating an account or use a creative username instead. Never share about your location or personal information and be wise about what kind of photos are posted. (That goes for mom and dad, too.)
- No private messaging or chat rooms. Private or direct messages and chat rooms on social media and in games can be dangerous for uninformed kids. Perpetrators use fake accounts (pretending to be a peer) to connect with kids online. Make sure your kids know to come to you if anyone they don’t know messages or starts a chat. No matter what!
- Children should have device accountability. Parents should know ALL device and account passwords for their kids and make a habit of frequently reviewing their interactions, what they’re posting and searching for. Know what apps and games they are using. Keep devices, gaming systems, and TVs in public areas of the house.
Thankfully, my son told me what happened during his “deforestation” search at school, but not until after it sparked a curious search on our home computer, which my filter reported. This led to an honest and heartfelt conversation about pornography and the challenges we face when we use the internet.
As I learned, we need to do all we can to protect our kids online and stay current on technology. But it’s really not enough. Our kids cannot navigate the internet alone (even with a filter). On-going conversations about internet safety and how to make wise choices online is the only thing that will not become obsolete.
If you’re like me, you not only want to help protect your kids from inappropriate images, you want to create a safe place for them to go with their questions and concerns.
And that begins with a conversation.
-- This post was updated on July 13, 2017. --
Christy M. Willard is a creative, putting her skills in photography, video, editing, writing, and graphics to use for projects she believes in. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse and trained advocate for abuse prevention, she has volunteered her time with Rise and Shine Movement since its inception. A mom of two, she understands how complicated parenting is in this ever-changing world. She hopes one day, because of awareness and parents like you, more children will be informed and protected.
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