Internet Training Wheels
Excerpted in the May 2021 Voices of Parents Forum
As parents, we want to keep our children safe and, at the same time, to foster their independence as they grow to adulthood. Reconciling these competing interests is especially challenging when it comes to internet use. As an IT professional, I deal daily with network security issues, but write this as the father of two grammar-school-age kids. I want to suggest a couple of strategies you can use to keep your kids safe while allowing them space for online exploration.
Few of us teach children to ride a bike by putting them on an adult one. We usually start them out on a ‘strider’ with no pedals, then move them up a child’s bike with a single gear and four wheels: two on the bike and a pair of training wheels to keep it upright. The balance required to ride a two-wheeler bike isn’t intuitive. You have to learn to turn toward the direction you are about to fall in order to prevent a fall and this skill takes time to master.
The consequences of learning to ride a bike are, inevitably, some scrapes and bruises, but training wheels (and helmets!) reduce the likelihood of those accidents and increase our comfort, as parents, as we watch our kids master a new skill.
The internet provides a similar journey for children as they develop critical adult skills, but the scrapes and bruises they suffer along the way are harder to recognize and the dangers more difficult for us to warn them about. These dangers are numerous—online bullying, access to adult content, strangers in chat rooms, sites to help kids cheat on schoolwork—and some are potentially traumatic. How can we create training wheels for our children’s internet “rides”? These have become especially important during the past year when the pandemic obliged us to allow them much more unsupervised internet screen time, both for entertainment and schooling.
When kids are very young, we often consume media alongside them. We watch kids’ TV shows, play video games with them or show them funny YouTube clips. As kids develop, we need to permit them space to develop their own agency and independently seek out things that engage them. While there are content monitoring services that provide ratings and parental controls (YouTube, Netflix and others all do this), most parents would probably be stumped if asked what techniques they could use to safely allow kids broader unsupervised internet access.
By age ten, if not before, your children are probably asking for their own phones. With a phone, your child feels empowered and can contact you in an emergency, both good things, but the downsides are significant. Modern smart phones are practically full computers, with internet access, and they expose your child to the dangers mentioned above.
There are two good ways to put training wheels on your kids’ internet experience: the first is let them use only feature-limited devices, like a smart watch, and the second is to set up DNS (domain name service) filtering on your home network.
My wife and I decided to give our ten-year-old daughter a feature-limited wrist phone, purchased through our cell phone service provider and intended for younger kids. We set a list of phone numbers of people—her friends, and us, of course—whom she can both call and receive calls from without supervision. The smart watch serves as a bridge to an eventual full-featured smart phone. Well reviewed devices, including Gizmowatch and the TickTalk3, are available from several wireless carriers.
If you go this route, it is important to talk the decision through with your child and make your expectations clear, just as you would about biking, “You can go around the block but not cross any streets.” You would let them know what parental controls you will use with the wrist phone, for example monitoring where they go and who they call.
A phone watch for kids is one of many devices that can help limit a child’s exposure to the internet.
The second way to put training wheels on your kids’ internet experience is to use DNS filtering. DNS stands for “domain name service”; it’s the layer of the internet that translates human readable site names (like www.parentsforum.org) into machine readable internet addresses.
Your domain name service, or DNS, is provided by your internet service provider: the equipment (the router) you have at home connects to your service provider. With it you get online, plus you get a handy map or guide in the form of a DNS service. Most of us simply leave that in place and happily start watching cat videos.
If you want know more, you can look here: https://www.cloudflare.com/learning/dns/what-is-dns/ but the main thing to know is that you can set up DNS filtering in order to provide a kid-safe internet experience. Rather than return every query that your child keys into a browser window with the published answer, the DNS server can make decisions about the request and mask the public internet response with its own response.
The family-oriented DNS filtering services on the market all work as a layer on top of your internet connection. Market leaders are “Cloudflare Family” and “Opendns Family Shield”. With one of these installed, your children’s requests from their devices are checked for safety. If an internet domain is a known bad actor (serving malware) or if it hosts material inappropriate for children (adult content, academic dishonesty, etc.) the DNS service will direct the browser to a page indicating that the content is restricted.
If your home router has the ability to provide multiple wireless networks, consider running a wireless network just for your children’s devices. That network can be set to use DNS filtering and dis-allow inappropriate requests.
Those are two types of internet training wheels that we can consider to help our children learn to use the internet safely. Perhaps most important, though, is the example we set for them by our own internet use. The internet is useful, it’s fun and more and more it’s absolutely essential, but the internet is not an end in itself.
What we do as parents—talk with our kids and listen to them, read them stories and have them read to us, help with homework (for as long as we can!), play board games together, play catch, go for walks—all of this is much more important than the devices we do, or don’t, give them. Even as technology plays an ever-larger role in schooling, work and leisure, our relationships have dimensions far beyond those the devices allow us to explore.
DNS filtering is another way to put training wheels on your kids’ internet experience.