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February 16, 2019

Monitoring apps for kids’ devices offer protection and peace of mind

Old school privacy was limited by the length of the cord.
Old school privacy was limited by the length of the phone cord. Image: Pinterest

Do parental monitoring apps violate your child’s online privacy? Spoiler alert: There is no such thing as online privacy.

There was only one telephone in the house, and it was bolted to the kitchen wall. The handset had an 8-foot coiled cord that allowed you to move a few feet into the hallway for “private” conversations.

But nothing was ever private.

Because the living room was just a few feet from the kitchen, my family heard ALL of my conversations. My mom knew exactly who I was talking to and what we were discussing. Calls were prohibited after 9 p.m., and my mom put the fear of God into any idiot who dared to make a harassing or obscene phone call to our house.

Flash forward 25 years. My house has a cordless phone which can be carried to any room; however, my children rarely use it. They’re usually texting or “talking” with their friends via social media.

But nothing is ever private.

We tried spot checks on devices

The dictatorship of Mom and Dad issued an edict when our kids first approached us about iPods and phones. They could have the devices, but we would be do spot checks on all their texts, photos, browser history and social media activity. The rules were pretty simple – no naked or sexy stuff, no foul language, no bullying, no gratuitous violence, and social media friends were limited to people they knew in real life.

The oppressed offspring initially complained about how we didn’t trust them and how we were violating their privacy, and we wholeheartedly agreed with them. We didn’t trust the judgment skills of their adolescent brains, and privacy was an illusion as long as they lived under our roof. Privacy is also an illusion online, and the sooner they understood that, the better off they would be. Material that is shared electronically easily becomes everywhere and everlasting.

So we did spot checks, and they were reasonably effective for a while. We had a few Come to Jesus family meetings about who they followed and were followed by on social media, and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth when we deleted inappropriate contacts and content. However, life got busy, our spot checks became less frequent, and then things really hit the fan.

We tried great parental monitoring software

The Qustodio dashboard
The Qustodio dashboard

The crap splatter took place after an older teen borrowed my 11-year-old’s iPod.

A few weeks prior to the incident, I installed Qustodio, a free parental monitoring app, on my son’s device. The app replaces the Safari search engine and allows parents to set restrictions about what kind of online content their children can access.

One day while my son was preoccupied with racing cars on the Xbox, the older boy  used my son’s iPod to search for a variety of explicit sexual terms. I discovered the searches later that day when Qustodio sent me its daily activity update, which included a list of all search terms, time stamps and links to accessed content. Oh, crap! (My actual response to the search terms was a bit more colorful and emotional.) Qustodio did a fantastic job preventing the teen from accessing sexual sites and content, but some unflagged adult content from YouTube managed to get through. I have since learned it’s important to block sites like YouTube and Vine, and I am still a huge fan of Qustodio.

The UKnowKids dashboard

Shortly after the iPorn incident, I signed up to test UKnowKids, a new app that helps parents ensure their children are using digital and social media safely and responsibly. The app, which is now available for IOS devices, monitors your child’s text messages, photos, and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for content that may be abusive, obscene or inappropriate. Parents receive a daily email report of their child’s online activity, and the system sends individual alerts whenever it detects inappropriate activity. In addition, it has a Dashboard feature that allows parents to see information such as the child’s new contacts, actual social media posts, and potential “hidden” social media accounts.

The news of the app brought another bout of wailing and gnashing of teeth to our house, and it took the promise of confiscated devices to get the kids onboard with installing UKnowKids. The app, which is not spyware, is readily visible on my children’s IOS devices and can be removed. However, should my children disable or delete it, they will be immediately be busted because the app will send me an alert message.

UKnowKids has been running for about two months, and I’m very pleased with the results. The app has helped identify a middle school Instagram “friend” with an affinity for f-bombs, an inbound bullying Tweet, a few inappropriate follows that required immediate deletion, and a Facebook post that included the word “crap.”

What we learned

While the technology behind Qustodio and UKnowKids is good, it does have limitations. Qustodio replaces only the web browser, and children can still access unfiltered content directly through apps such as Google, YouTube, Vine and others. UKnowKids monitors Twitter and Instagram, two of teen’s most commonly used social media networks, but it does not monitor search engines and cannot access popular and risky networks such as SnapChat, Omegle, Burnbook and others.

We now use both spot checks and the software because there are so many apps and downloads that cannot be monitored. (We also use iCloud Family Sharing, a service that requires our children to get our approval before downloading an app.)

Unfortunately, there is no way parents can monitor every social media and communication interaction our children have – unless someone finds a way to attach an 8-foot cord to a smartphone.



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