Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Do you lock-down gadgets to make them kid-friendly?
Yesterday I took a look at the Kurio 7S "kid-friendly" Android tablet, which beefs up the parental controls but asks you to sacrifice a lot in return. It might be the right solution for some homes, but personally I'd rather spend the extra $50 on the Nexus 7 and take on a little more personal responsibility for what my children are doing on the internet.
For now the thought of having their gadget privileges revoked seems to be enough to keep my kids in line, although I know it's going to get more difficult as they get older.
My children are 7 and 10 so they're at that age where they're old enough not to accidentally do the wrong thing, yet young enough not to deliberately go looking for trouble. They've got access to Windows, Mac and iOS devices around the house along with games consoles and the occasional Android tablet. Both children have a hand-me-down iPhone 4 which they use as a music player, with speakers in their bedrooms. I've pulled out the SIM card and disabled internet access, so they have no browser or app store access and there are no games installed. Mr 10 also owns a Kobo mini eBook reader, because he started reading books on the iPhone and I was worried about eye strain. For anything more the kids need to ask my wife or I for permission to use one of the other devices around the house.
We have a few ground rules that serve us well, but only because I know I can trust my children to do as they're told. For now the thought of having their gadget privileges revoked seems to be enough to keep my kids in line, although I know it's going to get more difficult as they get older. For most homes I'd say the best approach requires a mix of rules, trust and technological safeguards. You can't let technology do your job as a parent, but at the same time you can't be looking over your child's shoulder every minute of the day.
Apart from their locked-down phones and the Kobo mini, they're not allowed to use any of our devices (including the television) without asking permission first. Permission may or may not be granted depending on what time of day it is and how much screen/gadget time they've already had. We've found it takes them a long time to settle down if we let them play games right before bed.
If they are allowed to use a device, it has to be in the living area rather than the bedrooms. It's easier to enforce this rule now rather than trying to break them of the habit when they're teenagers. Once they own their own phones the rule will be that they recharge on the kitchen bench at night. For now we also prefer them to use tech in the living area so an adult is close by if they need help. They've had it drilled into them to ask us if they encounter something they're not sure of. They're not allowed to play new games or visit new websites unless an adult looks at it with them first, even if it's something they've already used at school.
One of the big factors in choosing suitable games and websites is whether or not it's possible to communicate with other players. Some sites like Club Penguin give you the option to limit interaction to a handful of phrases, which I like. My kids already understand the basics of real world and online stranger danger; people aren't always what they seem and people also tend to act like jerks under the veil of anonymity.
The other rule is that if we do say no to something we always explain why and the children seem to understand where we're coming from. They're much more likely to play by the rules if they understand the reasoning behind them.
I've locked down their iPhones but I haven't put kid-friendly restrictions on any of my devices because such restrictions are a pain to turn on and off as devices get handed between users. Fast user switching would be a step in the right direction. It's good to see Android beefing up its user profiles and I'd like to see Apple introduce something similar. I have created Standard user accounts on my old Macbook and Windows notebook, rather than letting the children use Administrator accounts. I also run Ad-Block Plus but I haven't gone the extra step of installing filtering software or other restrictions.
Things are obviously going to become more complicated once the children own more devices and stop asking for my permission to do things. There's already talk of Mr 10 needing an iPad for school next year, which I'm not thrilled about. If this does come about, it's going to be on the understanding that it's my iPad which he can use for school, not his iPad to do with as he pleases. Striking the right balance is going to be a challenge.
If I needed to implement some kind of user restrictions, I'd try to do it at the network level rather than the device level. I know you can get wireless routers which let you implement time limits for some users. Meanwhile switching to the OpenDNS servers instead of my ISP's DNS servers would make it easier to implement content filtering. It's a hassle if your home IP address changes when you reboot your router, so I'd probably pay my ISP extra for a static IP address. OpenDNS' whitelisting options can also be a pain to configure when some sites need to call on legit content from other domains. OpenDNS might also get in the way when I need to use that device, so I'd need a quick and easy way to disable it.
I can already think of several ways to bypass these kinds of restrictions and I'm sure my kids aren't far behind. That's part of the reason why I think a trust-based system is better at this young age, so as they get older we can build on that foundation rather than simply playing a cat and mouse game of technological countermeasures.
What are the online safety rules in your home and how do you enforce them?