Tools We Use to Keep Our Kids Safe with Technology
We utilize every tool we can think of to keep our kids safe - both physically and mentally - when it comes to using cell phones, internet, television, and other technology.
A friend recently reached out to my wife and I, asking what tools we use to keep our kids safe and limit screen time.
Oh boy! What a loaded question. There are so many things we do and it is a constant battle to stay ahead of the game. But I'll do my best to lay it out.
First a little background... We have 5 kids. 17F, 15M, 13M, 10M, 6M. Our rules are a bit different for our 17-year-old daughter because she has type-1 diabetes and we use the open-source Loop app along with OmniPod to manager her diabetes. It has really helped her keep her blood sugar under control. But in order to use it, she needs to have her phone with near her all the time. But otherwise are rules are pretty consistent with each of the kids.
It all starts with a contract. When we give them a phone, we lay the ground rules. We let them know that it is technically our phone and we have full access and control over it. We go over all the rules and have them initial each one so they are clear and it does not become an argument later. We can just refer them to the contract.
Teenagers seem to have terrible memories though. We find it helpful to have them go through this contract and re-sign it at least once a year. We will generally do this around the time of year when school is starting up.
We use Apple products. Keeping everything on Apple can be expensive, but it is what we prefer and what we know. We have the family controls set up so that we can manage our kids' devices from our devices. Apple now allows you to set all kinds of screen time limits and controls. Here are a few we set...
We set the downtime based on their contract. As they get older we give them a later downtime start time - especially if they have a job where they work late and need to contact us or co-workers. We turn on the "Block at Downtime" feature to disable apps. They can always send a request for exceptions that we can approve on our devices.
In an event where I want to "ground" them from their phone, but I need to communicate with them otherwise, I will turn on downtime from like 9:01 PM to 9:00 PM. This, basically only gives them one minute per day that they can access things. I can then set apps they need such as Messages to be "always allowed" so that we can communicate.
Generally, when a child gets a new phone, I don't set any app limits. I will then look at their usage stats on occasion and start limiting apps as needed. So each child has different app limits according to what I feel their needs are.
I have found that I can't completely block some apps, but I can set an app limit to 1 minute if I don't want them to use it. This has been effective enough. So I may have a number of apps or websites with a limit of 1 that I just want to block.
I allow all contacts during screen time, but only allow specific contacts during downtime. These specific contacts are generally family members.
There are a number of apps I set as always allowed. This allows them to use these apps when they are grounded (see above in Downtime). These are generally productive and essential apps such as Messages, Maps, Banking, Calculator, Scriptures, etc.
This one has a lot of options and I can say for sure they each option is set the same for each of my kids.
Usually, I allow installing and in-app purchases until I see abuse. Sometimes I may limit installing if they are installing a bunch of apps I don't approve of. I disable deleting apps. This comes in handy if I want to see what they are installing. If they can't delete an app, then I can see what they have installed so they are not being sneaky and installing apps to use and deleting them before I find out. It also keeps them from deleting apps I want to keep on their phones.
For the younger kids, I will disable Safari. As they get older I find they need it for school and so I enabled it and try to monitor usage and screen time.
There are lots of options here. I will just say that I don't allow movies and TV shows on the phone. I prefer they watch them on our large TV. I have my own methods of controlling that as well.
I also disable screen recordings. I don't think they need them. One child learned our screen time password by turning on-screen recording then asking for a password to play a game. That is how these types of privileges get lost.
This is turned on. It is helpful know where my kids are at any given time and they lose their devices a lot. We have recovered a device from another home thanks to this feature.
I've turned this off. I found that one child was disabling wifi and cellular data so that she/he could use certain apps that don't require internet access indefinitely because screen time does not get reported.
I have been through a number of routers trying to find one I like that has all the features I desire. I've been really happy with the Synology RT2600ac. I can set up profiles for each of the kids and link their devices to their profile. This allows me to set downtime for the internet on their devices and use filters to block access to unsavory websites. It also has a nice iOS app that we can open and pause the internet at any time.
Profiles are also handy for other media. I have profiles for the upstairs and downstairs TV areas. I will link the TVs, Apple TVs, Rokus, video games, etc. to these profiles. Since all TV now comes through the internet in our home, we can disable everything by pushing pause on the internet for that TV area. I can also set screen time limits (like 3 hours per day), and downtimes so there is no internet from 10 pm to 9 am for example. We can always override this. So for example, if we want to watch a late-night movie and it is over the downtime settings or the screen time has been used up, we just use our app to give us some extra reward hours of the internet.
The router only works if the kids' devices are connected to wifi. So I turn off their internet on the router, it is not uncommon for them to just turn off wifi and start using their cellular data. We have an unlimited plan so this happens often.
Verizon Smart Family allows me to also turn off their cellular data if I need to. It also provides similar content filters and limits that I set up on my router.
This is where it becomes useful to disable the ability to delete apps. It has been a struggle to keep the kids from disabling it, so it is best to just add it the contract and have consequences for when you find they have disabled it.
A recent addition to our home is smart plugs. I use them for my lamp because it is nice to tell Alexa to turn off my lamp. I have recently found them handy to just turn off all power to the TV and video games downstairs when kids are not listening. I just put a smart plug-in from of the power strip that everything else plugs in to. Then I can use my phone to turn it off.
I could also tell Alexa to turn off the plug, but I haven't done that yet because I don't want the kids to learn the name of it. Then they can simply tell Alexa to turn it back on.
In any case, it will still get their attention because it disrupts their zombie brains when they feel like they can't stop a show or video game to come to dinner. Turning it back on and going back into the game or show would take some time to get everything rebooted.
Phones and other devices are not allowed in bedrooms and bathrooms. We ask that they use them in open areas of the house. We have a charging station in my office where all the kids' devices go for the night to get charged. Each night at 9:00 pm, Alexa well announce that it is time to turn in cell phones.