School’s out, and while you’re off earning a living, the children are at home plowing through their summer reading lists, right?
Maybe your kids. Mine will be hunched over computers or smartphones, watching YouTube or playing “Roblox.” And despite my best efforts, it’s hard to tear them away.
So I’m checking out parental control systems that can automatically limit their screen time, and filter out the worst online trash. There’s plenty of tools to choose from, and quite a few are free.
Built-in parental controls
The major tech platforms — Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS and iOS, and Android — all have no-cost tools for managing your child’s activities. For instance, with Windows 10 you create separate Microsoft accounts for each child on a Windows PC. Then you can adjust the permissions for each of them, limiting the websites they can visit or setting time limits on daily computer use.
If the kids log onto a different Windows computer, the same settings will apply.
You can control their smartphones using Apple Screen Time or Android Family Link. These built-in apps let parents use an app on their phones to prevent children from installing unsafe apps or looking at inappropriate movies.
You also get a location tracker so you can monitor their movements.
And you can limit access to certain apps based on time of day — no Pokemon games between 2 and 5 p.m., for instance. A parent can use her own smartphone to remotely control all the kids’ devices.
One big drawback with Apple Screen Time is that it works only on iOS devices. If your family has a blend of Apple and Android gadgets, go with Family Link, which works on both platforms.
Broadband firms step up
Your Internet provider also offers some useful control options. With Comcast’s Xfinity service or Verizon’s Fios, you can get a smartphone app that lets you manage Internet access to every connected device in the house. In my household, which uses Xfinity, I can instantly shut off the broadband connection to the family’s phones, computers, and even the smart TV. I can also turn off Internet access at night or for selected hours of the day.
On the other hand, the content filtering feature is rather crude. It blocks Internet sites that Xfinity considers offensive, but doesn’t allow the user to set up customized blacklists and whitelists.
Also, remember that these broadband filtering products govern only the data coming over your home Internet connection. They’ll block the bad stuff from your home computers. But if your kid’s using a smartphone, he can bypass the filter by using the phone’s 4G connection instead.
For a more comprehensive solution, prepare to spend some money.
The hard(ware) way
Most parental control systems rely entirely on software. But then there’s the $129 Circle Home Plus. It’s a piece of electronic hardware, a little white box that sits between your family and the Internet, monitoring and managing all your household connections. Circle “sees” every device. By using a smartphone app, you can get a rundown on everyone’s Internet activity, by the day, week, or month. And parents can create a custom user profile for everybody in the house.
Parents can order up unfiltered Internet access for themselves. But for the children, you can create an age-appropriate profile just once, and then assign it to all their devices. That way, if your daughter has both a smartphone and a tablet, both get the same level of protection.
Circle Home Plus also lets you install a monitoring app on Apple or Android devices. Now you can control what your child does, even on a phone’s 4G network, and you can track his location. This service costs an additional $9.99 a month.
Sniffing out the bad
Even if you block the riskiest websites and videos, bad stuff can still get through. You can find out if it does by using Bark, a subscription service that monitors your child’s online activities.
Bark lets you sign up an unlimited number of kids for $9 a month. It monitors each child’s interactions with about 30 popular online tools and services — e-mail, text messages, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Spotify, and more. Bark doesn’t block content, but rather flags questionable content and then warns you about it.
For each service you just punch in the child’s user name and password. From then on, Bark uses artificial intelligence to examine all your child’s interactions with that service. The software will report back to you when it detects anything worrisome.
For example, Bark analyzes the lyrics of each Spotify song. When I played the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth,” it spotted the verse that goes, “There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware.” The word “gun” generated a violence warning.
The same thing happened with my son’s e-mail account. He receives news alert messages, and Bark flagged every one that mentioned a violent crime, which means almost all of them.
Happily, Bark can be “turned down” for less aggressive monitoring. Besides, it doesn’t actually block anything; it just makes it easier for parents to see what the kids are doing online, so we can nag them about it.
And with luck the kids will take up reading books instead, just to shut us up.