Help! I don't even know where to start...
The most common question I am asked by parents is 'what can I do to manage my child's screen time, I don't even know where to start?' I won't pretend that managing kids and teenagers screen time is easy, it's not, but there are some things you can put in place as a first step towards developing safe and healthy online practices. This section is expressly for the purpose of getting started, other sections will delve more deeply into different types of software, ways to introduce house rules, and communicating about technology with your kids.
A 2015 survey conducted by the Royal Childrens Hospital Melbourne found that of the top 10 child health problems that parents were concerned about, excessive screen time was number 1. A whopping 58% of parents identified excessive screen time as their biggest health concern for their child/ren, followed by 2) obesity and 3) not enough physical activity. It's probably clear to most that the second and third concerns are likely to be heavily influenced by number 1. Knowing that excessive screen time is unhealthy for your kids, and knowing how to do something about it, are two different things though.
So lets get started with some quick wins to get you started....
Positive screen use
It's important to have a few positives up your sleeve when you start a dialogue with your kids about screen use. Screens do add some really wonderful things to our lives, and we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Once you are ready to start implementing rules and restrictions for your child/rens screen time, start the conversation off by talking about the good things screens can offer, then introduce the idea that we also need to make sure we use screens in a healthy way. You could consider things like:
- Using video calls to see and speak to relatives who don't live close by
- Opportunities to learn new things and explore the world online
- Feel safe by knowing we can talk to each other when we are apart
Quick win no.1 - online settings
One of the biggest online risks to kids and teenagers is accessing material that is inappropriate for their age. The web is home to an unending array of adult content that your child/ren may find accidentally or on purpose, depending on their age. You may have discovered browsers content filters on your PC or devices, but those settings only pertain to that particular browser. If another browser is installed, the setting will probably not default to restrict certain content. A better approach is to filter content at the wifi level. There are a few programs that can do this for you, some free and some for a small fee. A free and reasonably easy program that allows you to set filters on your wifi (router) is Open DNS*
DNS stands for Domain Name Server and it’s the Internet's equivalent of a phone book (here's a quick video to help explain it). Just as you can block particular numbers on your phone, with a DNS filter you can block certain ‘calls’ from the internet. The beauty of a DNS filter is it stops unwanted traffic at the router, rather than the device. That means whatever screen is connected to your home network will be subject to the limits you set. You don't need to know the ins and outs of DNS in order to use DNS filters, but for anyone interested to know more, here's a quick video that explains the basics of DNS.
*BlackScreens has no affiliation with any program mentioned on the BlackScreens website, and no paid promotion is ever considered. Programs are mentioned if they have been tested by the BlackScreens research team and found to work as advertised.
Quick win No. 2 - Programmable routers
If setting limits to wifi access at home is your main goal there are easier ways of doing this other than switching off the router (which means no-one has any wifi). Chances are, you have the same router that your internet service set you up with. It probably doubt does a fine job of distributing the signal to multiple devices, but that might be it's functional limit. If you are willing and able to invest in a programmable router (they retail for around $200-$300).
Programmable routers let you see what devices are connected to your network (via a website dashboard), and then set times that the wifi is or is not available to those devices. You can also block types of content that a specific device can access, as well as specific sites. The beauty of a programmable router is that when you want there to be tech-free down time, there is no need to try to actively try end your child's screen time. The screens you have programmed schedules for via the router will be rendered mostly useless by the absence of wifi signal. So much easier than a screen-based tug of war!
If purchasing a dedicated router is not an option, you still may be able to add controls your existing router via an online interface. tp-link have a product that cab hook in to your router and enable you to set wifi limits and block content to specific devices.
Quick win No. 3 - Parental control software
Parental control software refers to programs or apps installed on a child’s device that allows parents to manage various aspects of screen time. The world of parental control software is not one that is easily understood, and certainly not easily navigated (I know this from personal experience!) so calling it a 'quick win' might seem like a misnomer. There are some basic apps though, that are relatively user-friendly and can get you started on the path of understanding this particular aspect of screen management.
Most people will be familiar with their operating system, either Android or iOS (Apple products). Different parental control programs work on one or the other, while some will work on both, so the first step is to look for and install a program that works for your child's operating system. Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started.
For Apple users, Moment is a basic but relatively easy to manage parental control app. This program allows you to monitor how much time you and your family are using devices, and switch off everyone's access to the wifi at set times (e.g. dinner time or bed time). There are a few downsides, such as the requirement of each person to have an email account to be able to install the app on their device, and if you have pretty tech-savvy kids they will probably work out how to disable it pretty fast. The app is free to try, or you can pay a fairly small amount to access 'premium features' There's also limited tech support for the program (it's literally one guy called Kevin...).
A good starting point for Android users is Family Time. Again this is a super basic app but it does have some handy features. You can set wifi-free times during the day, as well as set a 'bedtime' which turns the wifi off for the evening. Content filters are on the horizon for this app, and you can also enable location services if you want to know where your kids are (or have been). It even comes with a panic button you can enable should you want your child to be able to contact you easily in an emergency. There is a freeware version that has most of the basic features you need to get started, but for a very small monthly fee (about A$1.50 - $2) you can access a bunch of other options, including extended content filters (e.g. movies, music etc.), app usage and blocking, and the ability to set daily screen time limits (e.g. not more than 2 hours over a 24 hour period).
There are a lot more parental control apps on the market, and they vary in complexity. Some do more or less what they claim to do and some don't. The apps mentioned here are a good way to start to introduce the idea of managing screens, and are relatively user-friendly, but they are not comprehensive in their scope. Many bigger (and more expensive) programs (e.g. Qustodio, Norton Family, Net Nanny) will give you a high level of control, but they take a bit more work to get familiar with. One tip worth noting is that I found that many of the programs or apps I trialled had limitations. I installed different apps on my phone and deliberately tried to get around them. The most common issue I found with apps that claimed to filter search engine content, only did so within browsers that had been installed on the phone (some programs install their own browser). Pre-installed browsers (commonly referred to as 'bloatware') were often unaffected by content restrictions, rendering the whole process of adding parental control pretty pointless. The take home message here is, whenever you install an app or program on your or your child's device, test it. Do what I did and try to think like a 13 year old boy (not easy for a 42 year old woman...).
More to come....
We will continue to update the BlackScreens website with information about parental control apps, including the bigger, more comprehensive ones mentioned above. Please check back in to see what's new!