Over the years, I think my wife and I have tried just about everything to manage our kids’ access to the Internet. We’ve installed a half dozen Web-monitoring programs on every computer in the house, changed the Wi-Fi network passwords countless times, and spent hours on the phone with our wireless carrier getting it to throttle our kids’ data plans.
It was a total frigging pain. And we’re both geeks. Imagine what it has been like for non-tech-savvy parents.
While the tools have improved a lot since we started — Norton Family and Net Nanny are both pretty good at filtering Web content and reporting what your kids are up to — they still require way too much time and geek know-how.
Tomorrow is Safer Internet Day 2015, which aims to promote responsible behavior online and on mobile devices, especially among kids. Here’s my wish for SID2015: that somebody invents an easier way to manage our kids’ digital lives. In fact, there are a handful of parents trying to do just that.
A year ago I found a beautiful solution for controlling our home network: the Skydog router. It offered a simple dashboard that allowed me to control Internet access for every single device or user on the network. I could set time limits, block categories of sites or individual ones, throttle down the bandwidth, and more. I was in geek parent heaven.
Then, in June, Comcast bought Skydog’s parent company and took the router off the market. Comcast said it planned to incorporate the tech into a new generation of Xfinity routers, but it still has not announced a time frame for that.
Ever since then I’ve been seeking a Skydog substitute. I’m not alone, and a few parents have invented their own solutions. One is Rod da Silva, owner of WebCurfew, a platform that lets you control Internet access at the router level, turn devices on or off, set timers, and filter content.
The Chicago-based da Silva started developing WebCurfew three years ago to manage Internet access for his three kids; last year he turned it into a product. You can use WebCurfew’s content filters and access controls for free; if you want to set timers, you’ll need to pony up $6 to $9 a month.
The downside? You need to dig into your Wi-Fi router’s administrative settings to set it up, it doesn’t work with every router (none of the ones you rent from Comcast, for example), you can’t customize it by user, and your kids can easily defeat it by resetting the router. In other words, it’s not Skydog. But at least it’s something.
A vexing problem
Another parent taking matters into his own hands is Sean O’Riordan of Portland, Ore. He’s just launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the VexBox, a cube-shaped device that plugs into your existing router and creates a new Wi-Fi network just for your kids. Here’s the beauty part: When you turn on the VexBox, it doesn’t shut off the Internet, it just slows the connection down to 56K modem speeds.
And that’s it. The VexBox doesn’t do any content filtering; it’s just a way to get his kids to pry their eyes away from the screen long enough to do their homework and clean their rooms. When you turn the VexBox off, broadband speeds return.
The best part about it, says O’Riordan, is that the VexBox has improved his relationship with his 17-year-old stepson. They no longer fight over schoolwork or chores; when the kid sees his Internet speeds plummet, he gets up and does what’s needed.
O’Riordan has been using the VexBox at home for about six months; now he’s hoping to raise $50,000 so he can manufacture and sell these things to other parents.
The mobile savage
That still leaves a bigger problem: your teenager’s smartphone. Here, too, things are easier than they were a few years ago — just not easy enough. Now you may be able to throttle your kids’ data plan, track their locations, keep them from texting while driving, or limit the sites they can access using an app on your phone.
The key word in that sentence, though, is may. Your ability to do this varies from carrier to carrier and phone to phone. You may have to install multiple apps to get this functionality, and you’ll probably have to pay a monthly subscription fee. Use an iPhone? That’s too bad: Apple doesn’t let third-party apps manage any of these things on its consumer devices.
I recently tried to install AT&T’s FamilyMap app on my Android phone. It wouldn’t work. Why? Because my Nexus 5 is registered as a business line, and FamilyMap works only on consumer lines.
Why is this process so bloody difficult? I asked Tasso Roumeliotis, founder and CEO of Location Labs, now part of the security software company AVG. Location Labs makes safety apps for wireless carriers. When you install AT&T’s Smart Limits, Verizon’s FamilyBase, T-Mobile’s FamilyWhere, or Sprint’s Drive First app, you’re using Location Labs’ software.
(AT&T FamilyMap; Location Labs)
One reason is that wireless carriers move very slowly, because of both size and regulatory constraints, says Roumeliotis. A change to a sign-up process that would take a tech startup a few days to implement might take months for a carrier.
“Managing your kids’ mobile devices is a hard problem we haven’t completely solved,” he says. “In enterprises it’s called mobile device management; if you want to use your phone at work, you need to put software on it to make it secure. The same thing needs to happen in the family space.”
In the meantime, the best thing you can do is try to keep your kids from engaging in risky online behavior and minimize the distractions technology can bring, Roumeliotis says. That might involve using an app to throttle down their data consumption, or it might be as simple as locking the phone away in a drawer until their homework is done.
As with many parenting dilemmas, there is no simple push-button solution.
Send your Internet safety solutions to Dan Tynan at Modfamily1@yahoo.com.