In a Nutshell: Protecting your children in a digital world
Update added July 2, 2023:
|Free eBook: Catholic Quagmire|
This assessment appeared in 2017, that is, nearly six years ago, which is a long time in the Internet age. Nonetheless, the basic concerns are still relevant. While this article covers the problems presented by cell phones, clearly children should generally not have their own regular computers; rather, they should be accessing family computers as needed only in a public place in the home. The same goes for any television or other viewing or listening device which allows access to broadcast or online content. These must be password protected, and the passwords must be changed frequently. The parent should be logging in and queueing up whatever is to be viewed!
Once parents really think a child needs his or her own cell phone, it is best to begin with a phone that is locked down—for example, useful for making calls or texts to some numbers, but not for going online. Parental control software can be added to monitor and restrict activity. At some point, though, any older teenagers are going to need a more broadly useful phone, and at that point parental control software comes into its own. The goal is to make this a part of the open and ongoing moral and spiritual formation of your children, so that when they are old enough to leave home, they will stand a far better chance of effectively controlling themselves.
There is, I think, little point in attempting to restrict online activity once a child goes off to college and is no longer living at home most of the year. For that eventuality, the goal is to send your children to one of the few Catholic colleges with at least a strong Catholic presence. If it is necessary to choose a college which is somewhat mixed in this regard, it is important to get your child acquainted with the right administrators, professors, sound campus ministry people, and sound Catholic student groups.
The information in this article concerns the challenge created by the ubiquity of cell phones. The concepts are sound but the software assessments are out of date, though the particular software mentioned is generally still available, and will have been improved since 2017. A 2023 review of the “phone control landscape” recommended by a very recent correspondent may be found here: How to Protect Your Child From Inappropriate Content Online. In addition, since my software observations below rely partly on a PC Magazine evaluation done in 2017, here is the link to the equivalent evaluation as of 2023:The Best Parental Control Software for 2023. If you are reading this still later, search for the latest evaluation on the same website.
I should mention that, at age 75, I assume that many of those who are currently raising children and have some technological background will also have a far better grasp of the current issues than I do. Do not hesitate, for example, to see if your pastor knows an active Catholic parent who is well-versed in what needs to be done. As a modest orientation for your own determination to protect your children and raise them well, then, here is what I wrote about controlling cell phone use, way back in 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.
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.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!