Effective ways to monitor, filter kids' online activity


Last week, Middlebrook Principal Maria Coleman sent a letter to parents indicating that “a small group of students began posting hurtful and inappropriate comments on ask.fm and Instagram” on Wednesday afternoon, March 18, into Thursday morning. Instagram is a photo sharing social media site and ask.fm is an anonymous question-and-answer social media site.
School administrators did not specify the nature of the comments in the letter, but Ms. Coleman told parents that “social media is having a profound impact both positively and negatively on the way young people communicate.”
The situation may have some parents wondering how they can monitor their children’s Internet activity.
“There are actually a number of different ways that parents can monitor and filter activity,” said Kevin Vallerie, technology adviser at Untangled LLC, a Wilton-based business that provides technology services.
Mr. Vallerie said there are different blocking software packages and pieces of hardware that can be installed on a network to monitor specific devices.
“It will let you know what websites your kids have been to, how many hours a day they have been online and you can ‘white list’ and ‘black list’ certain websites,” he said.
Mr. Vallerie said software can range from $180 to a couple of thousand dollars.
“On the cheaper side, there are subscription-based solutions like CYBERsitter and Net Nanny, which allow for you to do a certain level of monitoring and restriction within a network,” he said, “but there are a lot of loopholes to get around those.”
Mr. Vallerie said it would be best to invest in the more expensive hardware or software.
“If you’re going to invest, it’s definitely wiser to consider a solution that gives you the ability to have that level of control over a home network and see what is happening on the network,” he said.
Although monitoring can be “somewhat helpful” and “somewhat preventative,” he said, “it doesn’t really limit the experience as much as parents think it would” because the monitoring is limited to a home network or specific device.
“You can pretty much go anywhere and get on the Internet, and kids are able to get onto the Internet on just about any device,” he said.
“If it’s not an iPhone or an iPad or an Android device, it’s a gaming system or a computer or at a public library.”
Mr. Vallerie said many parents begin looking at monitoring software when their children are 9 or 10 years old.
“It’s usually around the beginning of middle school that parents come to us looking for ways to monitor their children’s online activity,” he said.
“By the time they get through middle school, there are more parents saying, ‘I just want to lock down things on my network because these kids are out of control.’”
Mr. Vallerie said it’s better to start the conversation “when it seems like it’s too early to.”

Direct access


Mr. Vallerie said just about any social media platform can be difficult for a parent to monitor without the child’s username and password.
“What I tell people who are dealing with younger kids who want to create a social media account is, ‘First and foremost, you are exposing them to everybody else in the Twitter and Instagram and Facebook world,’” said Mr. Vallerie.
“You’re basically opening up and providing shared custody of your kid with everybody else who’s on the Internet, so it’s a good idea to have their usernames and passwords so you can actively log on to their accounts and monitor what’s happening.”
As for personal devices, said Mr. Vallerie, parents can set up parental accounts — like for iTunes or Google Play — that allow them to monitor applications that have been downloaded to devices that use the account.
“They can monitor what apps have been downloaded because it’s tied to your cloud account,” said Mr. Vallerie.
“Essentially, if somebody attached to a family account downloads Facebook and it’s never been installed on any other device before, a parent can see that it’s been downloaded by going to their cloud.”

Education


Mr. Vallerie said it’s important for parents to not only educate their children but to educate themselves as well.
“In this industry, I find that a lot of parents don’t really, clearly understand what social media is or what communication platforms there are on the Internet,” he said.
“The difference between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, ask.fm, Snapchat — all the different platforms kids have access to now — it’s important to understand what those platforms are.”
Mr. Vallerie said Google is “the best resource” for parents to find out about these platforms.
“If you don’t know what it is, you don’t know what it means or you’ve seen an acronym that kids are using that you’re not familiar with — Google it,” said Mr. Vallerie.

Discussions


Mr. Vallerie said it’s also important for parents to be vigilant about discussing social media with their children.
“It’s better to start the conversation when it seems like it’s too early to,” he said.
Instead of waiting until their own children get in trouble, Mr. Vallerie said, parents should “have conversations with their kids and show them what kinds of trouble other kids are getting into.”