Introduction to Parental Controls
The term parental controls can mean a lot of different things to different people. In general terms these days, parental controls usually refers to either the inherent settings or resources offered by a piece of hardware or software, or third-party applications for that hardware and software, which help parents to control, monitor, and limit the ways in which their child can use them. Often, this takes the form of manufacturer-provided tools on things like smart phones, tablets, or computers, coupled with third-party programs that act as filters, access controls, and more.
Typically, parental controls for mobile devices, computers, network hardware, and Internet browsers are set up and integrated with a parent or guardian’s account. From the parent or guardian account, settings can be changed, permissions given, reports generated, and so on. These parental controls help to limit the activities of child users, by limiting their screen time, what websites or programs they can use, what age-appropriate content may be allowed in games, TV shows, movies, and so on. Essentially, they allow you to customize access controls based on your child’s age and maturity level, and the kind of content and functionality you are comfortable with.
Because technology is a two-way street, and almost anyone could be coming into your home through a computer or smart phone, in a sense, parental controls are extremely important. Cyber crime, bullying, and lots of inappropriate content are part and parcel of online life. Ignoring it or not taking it seriously can leave your children vulnerable to harm. On the other hand, being a helicopter parent when it comes to gadgets and privacy may not be a great strategy either, causing kids to become secretive or feel they aren’t trusted. In order to create a balance and deliver more effective parenting, parental controls and parental control programs are available to help safeguard your child’s online life, and keep them out of online danger.
Online threats today are numerous and varied. Here, we’re not talking about inappropriate content that may be available on the Internet. Rather, online threats are actions or behaviors perpetrated by bad actors online can cause physical, emotional, or mental harm to your child, compromise their information or safety, or cost them (and you) money. Some key examples of online threats in this category are outlined below. All of these threats help to explain why parental controls are so important, and so popular.
There are countless examples of online predator behavior that have made their way into public consciousness via television shows like To Catch a Predator and their ilk. Indeed, online predators – whatever their purpose may be – pose a grave threat to children today. Not only is there physical and emotional harm that can result, but criminal acts and lifelong scars are commonplace. Keeping your child safe is one of the key roles and concerns of any parent. By helping to reduce the likelihood of your child encountering an online predator, and reducing the access they may have to your child online, parental controls help act as a guardian, vigilantly looking over your child’s shoulder, and keeping them safe.
Older children and teens have new things to worry about all the time. The last few years have seen an increasing awareness of the phenomena of cyber bulling. Children, tweens, and teens can be bullied to the point of depression or other disorders, and some even attempt suicide. What’s more, because it takes place online – rather than in the traditional classroom, school yard, or similar settings – it’s much harder to be spotted by an adult, and that much less likely to be stopped. Parental controls can help in this regard, so that your child doesn’t become part of these troubling statistical trends.
Mental health, particularly around online life and device usage, is becoming an emerging concern in the developed world, particularly among vulnerable populations like children and teens. Incessant trolling, social media, the need to keep up appearances – these pressures can combine to push people to the brink. Of course, helping your child cope with these kinds of threats starts with giving them praise and validation, and teaching them about self-esteem and self-worth. That will help them stand up to bullies. However, limiting access and providing flags to help you intervene can also be quite useful, and are among the key functions of parental controls.
It’s not only adults who can fall victim to cyber crime – children and teens are also ripe targets. Though typically more tech-savvy, they don’t always have the same “street smarts” or world-weary life experience to know how to spot a scam or con. Unfortunately, the online world is full of criminals looking for any chance to make a quick buck, swindle an anonymous someone, compromise personal information, and more. Children are perhaps the most vulnerable in this regard, and often have difficulty in discerning the intentions of people they meet online. Parental controls can help limit the access that strangers have to your child, and create alerts or notifications to allow you to intervene if a cyber criminal is looking to exploit your child.
The Importance of Parental Controls
The above-mentioned threats are not the only way in which parental controls can help to keep your child safe, and ensure they can have a positive experience online. Naturally, children are more tech-savvy than their parents were at the same age – or maybe even more tech-savvy than their parents are now! With an ever-expanding array of networked devices and new innovations, parental controls are only going to become more important to help keep kids safe and on the right track online. Some ways in which parental controls can help include:
- Allowing parents to see why their child may be distracted lately, if they’ve seen or been exposed to something that needs processing or discussion, or perhaps if they are being bullied or exposed to abusive or exploitative behavior.
- Monitoring internet and device usage, to help keep track of who interacts with your child, what sites they visit, and when they can be online.
- Requiring permission for any app or in-app purchases, online transactions, and similar, thus reducing the risk of abusive or accidental purchases to near zero.
- Protection from viruses, harmful malware, adware, spyware, and dangerous websites or software downloads.
- Safeguard your child from watching or accessing inappropriate content, whether that be in the form of streaming, games, music, or any other platform.
- Reducing the change of online addiction by limiting computer and device time.
- In some cases, parental controls also allow for real-world GPS-based tracking of your child’s mobile device, geofencing to confine them to an allowed “safe area” near home, and much more.
Why you need Parental Controls
In life, whenever anything bad happens to a child, the most likely first person to be blamed is the parent. Sometimes, of course, this is rightfully so – kids being locked and left alone in a car on a hot day is an example of this. However, most of the time, these things are part of life, and not a direct result of any kind of fault or negligence on behalf of parents. You cannot (and should not) hover over your child 24/7, or they will never learn to explore the world, learn, grow, and cope with adversity on their own. In short, it will stunt their mental and emotional growth. Therefore, they are going to get in trouble from time to time – this is natural.
In most homes with either one or two parents, it’s common for the adults to all be out of the house for large portions of the day, with full-time or part-time jobs, gig economy work, and more. Wage stagnation and economic realities mean this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Having one parent as a “stay at home” mom or dad is simply not an economic reality for the majority of people with children these days. That makes it practically impossible to monitor children 24/7, even if that were a good idea (which, as we stated above, it is not).
Additionally, technology and innovation is moving at lightning speed. Kids are being exposed to more content, capabilities, and people over the Internet at younger and younger ages. There’s a lot of good out there, and networked devices can be a powerful force for education and growth. But at the same time, the Internet can be a filthy cesspool of hate, violence, crime, sex, and exploitation. There is no simple way to shut your child off from the Internet in this day and age, lest they be ostracized and left out amongst their peers.
For all of those reasons, companies have developed and deployed parental controls and parental control software suites. They make it easier for parents to effectively regulate children’s online activities, online time, interactions, exposure, and so on. Whether it’s done through access controls, warnings, notifications, prevention mechanisms, or a combination of these strategies naturally varies by software platform and parental controls provider. In all reality, most people will end up with a mix of strategies based on the inherent parental controls on their devices and programs, and whatever software solutions they may choose.
In a very real way, parental controls are a lifeline for many parents, serving as something of an intermediary to help keep kids safe, while still allowing them to be part of the modern digital world – without having to be watching them constantly or hovering over their shoulder. Let’s take a look at some of the mechanisms that underpin how these parental controls work.
Parental Controls for Phone and Tablet
Anyone who has a child of sufficient age these days will not be surprised to learn that tablets are playing an increasingly important role in children’s digital lives, with smart phones being a close second. The portability, simplicity, and plethora of games and educational titles available today make them a logical fit for modern children. Since these serve as primary devices for kids, and their gateway to the Internet and the outside world, it’s critical to understand and utilize the systems and products available in the form of parental controls to ensure they stay safe.
Several good options exist for smart phone and tablet parental controls. Both iOS and Android have their own built-in tools to offer some parental control features. Google’s Family Link gives you control over a child’s Android device, tracking screen time, setting daily limits and bedtimes, and so on, often remotely from your own smart device. Keeping tabs on activity, times, and even GPS location can all be vital to finding out when something is wrong, and knowing when you need to step in to keep your child out of trouble.
iOS is more restrictive, due to the way in which the permissions work within the Apple operating systems. However, it, too, has some basic parental controls and functions that allow for screen time restrictions and content restrictions.
In both cases, however, the downside to these parental controls built into these devices is that their effectiveness is limited, especially as children reach their teenage years. Teens are a bit more sophisticated, and are likely to balk at many of the invasive, privacy-breaking aspects of parental controls, including native options for these devices.
How Parental Controls Can Help Good Parenting
Parenting has always been, and will always be a challenge. Parental controls help provide peace of mind and security for your child, so you can rest easy at night knowing your kids are safe online, protected from those who would seek to do them harm, and safely kept away from inappropriate material. Here’s a recap of the ways in which parental controls can help you in your quest to provide good parenting for your children.
Monitoring Internet Access
With parental controls, you can easily monitor Internet activity – videos, games, new applications or software installed, websites visited, the text of emails and chats, and more. It’s obvious that children will use their computer and devices to access content and communicate with people online. But thanks to parental controls, you can help monitor what they access and who they talk to, and ensure that they stay safe and within bounds.
Category or Rating-Based Restriction
There are a number of different methods for restricting access to content with parental controls. Whether on mobile, laptops/PCs, or tablets, parents can set categories of content that are appropriate and inappropriate, use an age-based or common rating system (relying on TV, movie, and ESRB ratings for games, for instance), whitelist or blacklist certain sites and content, and more. Some parental control tools provide a greater degree of customization than others, but they all seek to help make it easy for you to filter out things like violence, sexuality, self-harm, addiction/drug use, and related themes from the content that your children access.
Website Access Controls
Games, movies, music, streaming, and apps aren’t the only thing that can be restricted, or have customized access controls put in place with parental controls. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling aspect of these parental control programs is their ability to control access to websites. Whether a site may have a virus or try to insert malicious code into your system, compromise your personal data, or just plain has content that’s inappropriate, parental controls can help you to proactively block them. Many also can provide notifications if your child tries to bypass or access new sites in these categories – and even features for you to whitelist “approved” sites that might get accidentally categorized as inappropriate.
Control App Usage
Your kids may not be mature enough to use social networking sites, but that doesn’t mean they won’t want to access them. Parental controls can put password requirements on certain apps, or outright stop them from being accessed. At the same time, some apps are outright inappropriate. Others may require micropayments, or any other details that you do not want your child to share. Read our reviews and rankings for the best parental control apps to determine which app might suit your needs. Many parental controls software also have app extensions and provide app-specific usage limits, content controls, timing restrictions, and more.
Limit Use Hours and Time
Online and device addition are becoming more and more commonplace. Children are using devices and the Internet more and more, at younger and younger ages. There are a plethora of studies and anecdotal evidence to support this, and it’s a growing concern among many parents as well. Excessive device usage can hurt children in their studies, leave them with a lack of interest in real-world interaction, suppress physical activity, and more. Limiting device usage hours (so your child can’t play on the phone all night), or setting caps on how many hours the devices or apps can be used in a given day or week, can all help to prevent addiction. In that way, parental controls help to put device usage and Internet usage in an appropriate, balanced context.
Track and Log Activity
Not everything is a crisis, and needs you to intervene or be notified in real time of what your child is up to. Likewise, not every child is of a maturity level that they need everything blocked and access limited. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to be able to know what your children are doing with all their unsupervised time online. Browser histories are easily deleted, and tech-savvy kids know still other ways to cover their tracks. Parental control software often have reporting and activity tracking, which you can review on demand or in aggregate on a weekly or monthly basis, so you have an idea of what sites are being visited, whether your child is frequenting dangerous or worrisome content, or seems to be the victim of an online bully, for instance.
Simple solutions for helping limit online search content to age-appropriate results are often easily bypassed by smart kids. It’s always useful to set Google and Bing SafeSearch options, but don’t rely on them exclusively. Parental control software can help provide an unbreakable, password-required setting to keep search results age-appropriate.
Of course, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what parental controls are and what they can do for you and your children. Ultimately, the best form of parental controls is always going to be teaching your children responsibility, self-esteem, skepticism, and related values. Your involvement in their lives will also help to keep them safe and on-target with appropriate content, device, and Internet usage. But no matter how involved you may be, and how well you teach your child, there are still dangers online.
Kids don’t like feeling controlled, or having their privacy violated. However, some basic parental controls can help strike the balance between having you staring over their shoulder on the one hand, or letting them do whatever, whenever they want on the other. For both parents and kids, modern parental control software is pretty much the best solution, the best middle ground, to help them have freedom online, but to keep them safe and in age-appropriate content. That’s well worth the research, installation effort, and cost for almost every parent who loves their child.