8 Tools To Manage Technology for My Children
29 September 2014 (updated 2 July 2015)
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If you’re a parent, like me, one of the challenges of accelerating technological change is that of encouraging children to explore and learn from our increasingly interconnected world while mitigating risks inherent in all exploratory endeavors. Friends often ask me how I do this with my children, and another just asked again today, so it’s probably time to write some of this down. Before I share with you a list of some of the tools we use in our family, I have a few comments about some behaviors that are probably more important than the tools.
The first behavior is that of talking with children about technology as neither a good nor an evil thing in itself, but rather as a powerful thing that can be used for good and evil. I want my children to know that technology has enabled humanity to connect and empathize with each other in unprecedented ways, alleviate and relieve suffering well beyond previous capacities, and provide far broader and greater economic opportunities than ever before in history. I also want them to know that technology has increasingly enabled us to harass, denigrate, coerce, and of course kill each other far more efficiently. So we talk about age-appropriate examples of both the good and the bad.
The second behavior is that of modeling responsible technology use. This one can be harder because actions are always tougher than words. However, as most parents have figured out, our examples usually speak louder than our words. I want my children to see that I use technology to help others, to advocate ideas I value in ways that are respectful of others even when we disagree (without avoiding constructive disagreement), and to create and to support creation of tools, processes, and institutions that leverage the increasing power of technology to improve the vitality of our bodies, minds, relations, and world. I also want my children to see that I moderate my technology use according to the situation, such as avoiding texting while driving, or maintaining focus on a physical connection even when virtual connections would interrupt. Am I perfect at modeling responsible technology use? Nope, but it’s still important to me. So I try to do that too.
Enough preaching, then, for now – I’ll surely get back to that soon enough. Here are some of the tools that we use to manage technology for the children in our family.
1) iPhone Restrictions
We’re an iPhone family. Each of us has one, and we haven’t had a home phone since dinosaurs roamed the Earth – yes, my children sometimes act as if I’m that old. On each iPhone for a child, I enable restrictions before I hand it over. Restrictions are found in the Settings app under “General > Restrictions”. They allow me to make decisions about how my child can use his phone. We turn off the Safari app, so that general web browsing isn’t available; my kids browse the Internet on desktop computers, and I’ll say more about that later. We also turn off the “Installing Apps”, “Deleting Apps”, and “In-App Purchase” options, so that the children have to talk with me about the apps they would like to install or uninstall before it happens; this is particularly important in relation to the decision to turn off Safari because many apps have built-in web browsers that would allow unrestricted web browsing. I set content rating restrictions as age-appropriate for the particular child; there’s a relatively new feature that enables website filtering, but I haven’t tested it much yet, so we haven’t begun using it. I also lock “Location Services”, “Share My Location”, “Twitter”, “Facebook”, and “Accounts”, so that the children have to talk with me about any changes they’d like to make to these services. Finally, I turn off the “Multiplayer Games” and “Adding Friends” options, mostly because I’m not sufficiently familiar with the social environment in the Apple Game Center, and my kids haven’t ever cared about it.
2) iPhone Security
I’m also concerned about keeping my children’s accounts devices and accounts secure. I don’t want them or the information in them to be abused by others who may gain access to the device. So, before locking in the restrictions as described above in #1, I go to “General > Passcode” in the Settings app to turn on the “Simple Passcode” option, as well as the “Erase Data” option. The latter will delete all the data on the iPhone after 10 failed attempts to put in the correct passcode. This may sound like it would be a pain if ever someone messes around on the phone, trying to guess the code, and causes it to erase its data. However, if you also have the iCloud backup turned on then all you have to do is restore the phone to the most recent backup, and your child is good to go, even after a data erasure prevents someone from having too many chances to guess the passcode.
3) Google Apps Accounts
We’re also a Google Apps family. And, by that, I mean not just Google accounts, but rather a full customized Google Apps domain (in our case, that’s metacannon.net). This allows me to have much more control over and insight into the Google accounts that my children use for email, calendaring, online documents and storage, and the whole array of other Google services. With the full knowledge of my children (this isn’t about spying on them or surprising them), I set up each of their custom Gmail accounts to forward copies of all received emails to my account, which filters them into subfolders that I can review from time to time. When I review them, I’m generally looking to help unsubscribe them from spam and ensure they’re not being harassed in any way. I also set up user groups that we can use for family mailing lists or shared calendaring. One of the consulting services I offer is that of assisting with the setup and maintenance of custom Google Apps domains, so contact me if you would like my help with that.
4) Google Chrome Accounts
Related to #3 above, I set up my Chrome web browser such that it can quickly log in to multiple accounts, using any of my children’s Google accounts and remembering the usernames and passwords associated with all of the online services they use. You can do this, in Chrome, by going to the “Users” section in Settings, and adding a user for each child’s Google Apps account. This enables me, whenever needed, to provide support or make configuration changes quickly, without having to log out of my own accounts, and without having to memorize (or look up notes about) their accounts. I always try to enable parental controls on the services my children use. Some have better options than others. In any case, I always require that my children share the usernames and passwords they use to access online services, so that I can also have access. The Chrome web browser, in conjunction with Google Apps accounts, makes it pretty easy to use the access when needed.
5) Google Apps Security
My wife and I both use two-factor security on our Google Apps accounts, as well as for other online services to the extent such security is available. This makes it necessary for a person to know a password and have access to a device before being able to access our accounts. If you haven’t noticed, there are people on the Interest that want your naked selfies, and two-factor security makes it much more difficult for them to hack your accounts. ;) I mention this because I’m preparing to extend two-factor security to my children’s accounts too. I’ve experimented and found that both Google Apps accounts and most other online services enable multiple devices to be associated with two-factor security, so both my child’s phone and my phone could serve that purpose, thereby making their information more secure, while still enabling me to access their information as needed. Ways of setting up two-factor security vary quite a bit from service to service. For Google Apps, you just go to the account security webpage, select the option to turn on two-factor authentication, and follow the instructions. You’ll have the option of either using an app on your smart phone or text messaging to receive codes on the device, and you’ll use the codes in addition to your password to sign in to your accounts from time to time – there’s usually a period of time (like a month) before a service will ask you to authenticate again on the same device.
6) iBoss Internet Router and Filter
As mentioned in #1 above, my children generally browse the Internet using desktop computers on our home network, which I run through an iBoss router with filtering built in. There are several advantages to this setup. First, it’s a lot easier to setup and maintain a single filter on one device than many filters on all the devices that might access the Internet through your home network. In a single location, I can turn off access to sensitive website categories, such as pornography or gambling, and the policy immediately affects all devices accessing the Internet through my router. Second, I can turn on or off Internet access for all devices on my network from a single location. For example, I have our router configured to turn off the Internet every day at 8pm, so that the children can prepare for bed without distraction. Third, the iBoss permits me to set up profiles based on devices or users, so I can configure my devices to circumvent gambling restrictions (alas, I’m too poor and too good at math to gamble seriously) and continue accessing the Internet after 8pm. In conjunction with this, I’ve also set up a VPN (virtual private network) to access my iBoss router even when I’m not home, so that I can turn on/off the Internet when away, as may be needed by the children. Setting up a VPN is not a particularly easy thing to do, though, so less-technical persons would almost certainly need assistance from a more-technical person with this part.
7) AT&T Smart Limits
In conjunction with the iPhones, we use the AT&T Smart Limits service to manage the way our children use voice, text, and data services. When already signed in to your AT&T account, you can find Smart Limits by going to “myAT&T > Wireless > Smart Limits”. I configure this service differently, depending on the age of the child. For younger children, I set up tight restrictions on phone numbers they can call or text. As the child gets older, I relax those restrictions. I’m also able, with Smart Limits, to control the times of day when my children are allowed to use voice, text, and data services. For example, during the school year, we shut down the services at 8pm on school nights, although we allow usage later into the evening on the weekends. Emergency calls and white listed numbers will always work. Between this service, and the iBoss router described above in #6, I’m easily able to establish general rules for when Internet access is available across all of our children’s devices, and of course I’m also easily able to circumvent those rules when exceptions are needed, such as for late night homework emergencies. I’ve found that it’s always easier to have an automated general rule that makes me a good guy for granting exceptions than it is to have a lack of automation and rules, which makes me a bad guy for turning things off.
8) iPhone Location
Finally, returning briefly to the iPhones, I’ll note that we use the Find Friends app and Find My iPhone app and related online services for all of our iPhones, sharing access among all family members, and preventing the children from further sharing access to others (in the restrictions mentioned in #1 above). In this way, we always know where to find each other, both the children and the adults, without the need to bug each other for as much information. Some adults may find that sharing their own location with their children is uncomfortable, but I’ve found it to be a good way of establishing mutual trust. We’re a family, so it makes sense to us to know where each other is all the time. Of course, this service also helps us (more often that we’d like to admit) to find each other’s lost devices. Note, too, that Apple has just recently updated these services to make them even more family friendly during the configuration process. I recommend that you configure the “Family” option in the “iCloud” section of the Settings app.
There you go. Those are the main tools that I use to manage technology for my children. The children now range in age from 17 to 10, and we’ve been using most of these tools for over 5 years with positive results, both satisfying concerns my wife and I have had and enabling flexibility my children have needed. Hopefully this will be helpful for you. If you have questions, please post them in the comments.