How to get the most out of parental controls

Story highlights

Focus on the key areas you want to tackle; that will make whatever parental control you choose more useful

Simplifying and sharing these goals will help your kids understand what they're working toward

You’d probably love to have a little more control over your kids’ online lives. And sometimes – like when they play multiplayer games, join social media, or binge-watch YouTube – you’d like a lot of control. If you’ve purchased or shopped for parental controls, say a hardware device like Torch or software like NetNanny, you know about the tradeoffs involved. On one hand, they can be costly, complicated to use, hackable, and a stumbling block in your relationship. On the other hand: control.

Here’s the thing: Actually using parental controls – just like parenting – is a process. And the devices and software aren’t a solution on their own. What these products do – manage screen time, block inappropriate content, and make sure kids are behaving on online – is ultimately what we want kids to be able to do by themselves. In other words, at some point, we want to hand over control. Easier said than done, right?

The solution is to focus on the key areas you want to tackle. That will make whatever parental control you choose more useful. And simplifying and sharing these goals – when you can – will help your kids understand what they’re working towards.

Remember, you want to support your kids’ learning the same as anything else: set clear expectations, be consistent, and talk about what they’re doing.

GOAL: “I want to be able to control how much time my kids spend online – without taking their devices away – and make sure they don’t have access to stuff they’re not ready for.”

What to look for. The ability to pause the internet, set timers, lock individual devices, and block/filter specific types of content. You might be able to get away with the parental control features already built into your device’s operating system or available in a free app. Apple offers Family Sharing, Guided Access, and other restrictions, and is introducing new Screen Time features in its upcoming iOS 12. If you use Android, the operating system Pie will offer information about device use, and Google’s Family Link app for Android allows you to set time limits and restrict content. Devices like XFinity’s xFi or Circle with Disney let you do things like shut down the internet via an app and block certain content.

Why the best parental control is you

Before you begin. Blocking content probably won’t cause too much conflict (if they can’t see it, they’ll eventually forget it). And preventing access to stuff that’s inappropriate is non-negotiable. Turning off the internet without warning, however, is what exasperated parents refer to as “the nuclear option.” Call a family meeting and talk about your goals, concerns, and overall approach as a family: Under what circumstances will you pause the internet? At dinner time? After two warnings? Develop a system so that your kids understand the rules and expectations.

Troubleshooting. Even though they know the limits, kids will ask for “just one more minute.” Try to be consistent. Maybe one more minute is OK, but after five it’s go time. If your kid claims that they need the internet to finish their homework, tell them the internet can stay on if they’re not multitasking (i.e. chatting, texting, playing Fortnite, or scrolling on social media), and keep an eye on them. Determine in advance how sympathetic you’re going to be when they can’t get their homework done by a certain time. They’ll need to learn to work within their limits, and if they can’t, you’ll need to intervene to get them on track. As for filtering and blocking content, be aware that kids can get around almost anything and content blockers aren’t foolproof.

Path to self-regulation. Once you’ve established device-free times and zones, and it seems like you’ve all fallen into the habit, consider going a few days without using the parental control and talk about how you did. Check in with your family: How’s it going? Are the goals the same? What are the challenges and how can you problem solve?