Just In Time For Back-To-School… Hardware-Based Parental Controls For Today’s Connected Home

By Ben Halpert, Founder Savvy Cyber Kids, an EarthLink partner

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When we talk about outside information exposure and its impact on our kids, it helps to take a step back to when we were younger (yes, I am showing my age.). Our parents had to manage several input sources: friends and family that visited, newspapers, magazines, T.V., phone calls, fax messages, and VHS/Laser Disc/DVDs — along with audio cassettes/CDs and books purchased, rented, or borrowed from the library. Later, if your family was lucky enough to have one of the first computers to gain access to information — while only accessible over a really slow modem, your parents then had a new set of enormous input implications. Watch War Games if you want to see an older computer getting online and a negative implication caused by a curious teen.

The difference between then and now is that with the prior information sources, much of the information was based on proactive information gathering. Think of it as a “pull” to access information.  For today’s parent, the evolution of all the prior technologies has resulted in “push” enabled technologies that expose our children to all the world has to offer — both good and bad.

Most every device parents purchase today, beyond traditional computers, tablets, and smartphones, is Internet-enabled, from thermostats (Nest, Honeywell), gaming platforms (Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo), TVs (almost all of them!), home assistants (Alexa, OK Google, Hey Siri), home appliances, and even children’s cuddly toys (!) are connected to the Internet and information is always available all of the time (and let’s not forget the privacy implications of devices because they are always listening – topic for another post). Whew, that’s a lot for a parent to consider in today’s age of digital parenting.

There is a class of parental control options that can help parents raise their children in a world filled with ‘always on and connected’ devices. Admittedly, it is hard to find any set of parental control devices where you can compare apples to apples. Each hardware solution was built to fulfill a specific set of requirements that the company deemed to be the most desirable by its intended users. But some comparable features do exist across the solutions that are available for parents to use in their home.

While there are several hardware-based parental control options for today’s connected home, such as Torch, KoalaSafe, Screen, router based options, and OpenDNS, I am going to focus on selected aspects of two solutions: Circle and Luma.

Both Circle and Luma address the two most common pain points I hear from parents. Without fail, during and after the parent cyber ethics sessions I facilitate via Savvy Cyber Kids, parents always bring up the same two biggest issues:

  • Getting their kids to put the devices down (technology addiction issues – again topic for another post); and
  • Limiting exposure to inappropriate content such as pornography, violence, among other categories (also known as content filtering).

For both Circle and Luma, you will begin by creating a profile for each member of your family. Then you assign child-specific parental controls based on aspects unique to each child such as age, maturity, etc. Here’s a glimpse at how our two featured products address these common digital parenting issues:

Limiting Screen Time Without Having An Argument Every Time:

To do this, both Luma and Circle allow you to set a bedtime in their accompanying apps. You can set a different bedtime for each member of your household. In this context, “bedtime” means the time when the internet stops working on your child’s device. So while you may have some initial discussions and negotiations on when connected time should end in the beginning, these devices help you digitally parent by enforcing a technology bedtime rule.

Preventing Your Child From Being Exposed To Inappropriate Materials, For Each Child:

You can set content filter levels specific for each child. In Circle the categories for assignment are Pre-K, Kid, Teen, and Adult. For Luma, the categories follow more of the movie industry rating system of G, PG, PG-13, R, and U (unrated or unrestricted access).

Although content filtering sounds fantastic, if you try and restrict your child to a low filter rating, many of the games they play, apps they use, and sites they visit may not work. This is because many of the sites, apps, etc. are supported by ad networks that register as a higher filter rating than the content your child is actually trying to access. In addition, your rating of a site, app, or game may be different than the company’s content filter that you are using. In other words, this is a highly subjective process that is challenging to automate.

Here’s some differences between the two solutions that may help you choose:

  • For the Circle, there is an app called Circle Go (additional subscription fee required) that extends your home parental controls to your children’s phones and devices when they are NOT on your home Wi-Fi network.
  • For Luma, if you have any Wi-Fi dead spots in your home, Luma actually acts as a Wi-Fi enhancement solution. Weak Wi-Fi in one room? Add a Luma. Weak Wi-Fi in another area of the home (or outside!) add another Luma.

All parents need to understand that parental controls will never work as you hope they will 100% of the time. What does that mean? All parental controls should be used as an aid in digital parenting and NOT as a digital babysitter.

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