In a Nutshell: Protecting your children in a digital world, in 2017

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 24, 2017

Now that “connected” devices are ubiquitous—and not just through an easily controllable home network—parents may not know what they can do to monitor their children’s use of online media, including social media. And what about calls to and from their personal phones? Nothing can substitute for close parent-child relationships, including fostering a strong spiritual life, proper instruction concerning online dangers, clear rules and, of course, constant prayer for your kids. But it is possible to use technology to set restrictions on what your children can do, to protect them from many dangers, to know where they are, and to monitor their online activities—even in this age of cell phones, and even when they are away from home.

If you have not yet selected a cell phone for your child, please note that Apple’s operating system (iOS), used for its “i” products (iPhones, iPads, iPods), is deliberately designed to make it more difficult for other programs to “hook in” and take control. This makes monitoring more difficult. While most major software providers have found ways to monitor and control devices that use iOS, be aware that more comprehensive monitoring, controlling and reporting features are available in the Android operating system (and also for the few phones that operate on Microsoft Windows).

Note also that you may not have to resort to your own research into third party software. Most cell service providers provide a range of parental controls for a modest monthly fee. The services usually include some or all of the following: Locate family members through GPS; Review information about and set limits on data, voice and messaging usage; Control which apps are on the child’s phone; Review lists of people your child has called or texted, or vice versa; Allow or block specific contacts; set time limits or lock the phone; Filter content in real time. The last item is often handled through a company with which your provider has partnered. For example, my carrier (Verizon) has partnered with Mobicip.

You should also note that the best third-party programs all do a good job of policing the web and social media, but not all of them provide location tracking for phones with built-in GPS; and not all are able to access the phone’s logs to report who has called your child and vice versa. Again, however, these services are available for an extra monthly fee from most cell phone carriers.

Third party software

Since the 1980s, my go-to source for technology reviews has been PC Magazine (only online; it hasn’t been a printed magazine for many years). There are other good sources of information, but if you don’t have a personal favorite, you can start here. The editors typically evaluate hardware and software and put the results in guides such as the one most relevant here: The Best Parental Control Software of 2017. Products marked with the red and yellow “EC” logo are editors’ choices.

But evaluation can still be difficult for those who do not typically keep up with this sort of technology. If you do not know the general extent of the problem along with the potential technological solutions, it is difficult not to miss things that should be in the third-party software but are missing. Also, one problem with relying on reviews is that this technology is moving so fast that they can become outdated after a few months. A further problem with relying on the periodic “best of” round ups is that while the judgments will usually be up to date, the last full review of a particular product may be a couple of years old.

Even in the 2017 round-up I mention above, all of the editors’ choice software has progressed beyond at least some of the limitations listed. For products you become interested in, it is always wise to check the product’s own website to see if any deficiencies in the comparison table or the full review have been eliminated. And try to find recent user comments.

Net Nanny and others

Although, the “Best of” review I pointed to earlier marked Net Nanny as not supporting iOS, that is no longer the case; Net Nanny has since plugged that hole. It was already an editors’ choice and it is considerably better now. Net Nanny offers a flexible approach to parental controls, an outstanding web filter, the ability to mask profanity, time management, and social media monitoring. Management and reporting are handled through a simple web-based interface. I have used Net Nanny successfully in the past. So, if you do not need your third party control software to show you who your children have called and who has called them, and you do not need to track their location through the phone’s GPS, I can recommend Net Nanny for parental control of a variety of devices used by one or more children, no matter how they connect to the online universe.

If you choose Net Nanny, what you will want as of today is the Net Nanny Family Protection Pass, which lets you protect up to 5, 10 or 15 computers or devices for $59.99, $89.99 and $119.99 per year, respectively. The Protection Pass will come with a free year of the company’s excellent social media tracker, Net Nanny Social, though thereafter this product will cost an additional $19.99 per year to protect the entire family. But if social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is a concern (and it should be), you should have it.

However, if you need a feature that Net Nanny lacks and do not wish to (or cannot) get that feature through your carrier, then take a good look at the two other editors’ choice programs: Norton Family Premier, which has a lower subscription rate and includes GPS tracking (or Norton Security Premium, which includes Family Premier); and Qustodio Premium, which has a free version that you can use to get started, and does both location tracking and call reporting/blocking.

Privacy

Some of these programs provide a secret mode, but they do not require its use. There are other “spy” programs which completely invade your growing child’s territory without their knowledge, but I do not regard this as a constructive approach. The companies highlighted here see their software as something that helps parents in discussing goals, behavior and problems with their children, in order to foster greater maturity and responsibility. In the main, they rightly see that this should be part of a growing relationship: Not to “spy” on their children, but to collaborate openly and actively in keeping them safe and providing outstanding moral formation.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Mar. 25, 2017 10:49 AM ET USA

    Once we had an app to track our high-school-aged daughter's location. It ended up causing even more anxiety, especially the time when she was spending the night with a friend and it mistakenly showed her location in a canyon at 2 in the morning! We finally ditched it and resorted to the old-fashioned "if you are going to be out late, call!". Moral of the story: trust is key.