Every parental control option that can protect your child’s online safety

Chloe Schneider
Chloe Schneider
Chloe is a writer and content strategist with bylines in mindbodygreen, Mashable, Ageless by Rescu, and more. She's a mum to one-year-old Felix, and believes that you can have it all, you just can't have it all at once
Created on May 31, 2024 · 7 mins read

Online safety is a relatively new parenting conundrum.Couple that with the fact that it never really stops changing —both because the tech itself evolves and advances, and the way your kid uses it changes as they age — and it’s easy for parents to feel overwhelmed by it all.

Just like ‘safety’ in the real world, the umbrella term of ‘online safety’ is quite broad. Instead, you might want to think about online safety for kids in a few different categories:

  1. Protecting kids from adult, harmful or disturbing content 
  2. Protecting kids from making contact with strangers 
  3. Protecting against online scams 

Parental controls can help parents keep their kids safe in all three areas. They may not be impenetrable and they’ll never replace the need to teach your kids about good online habits, but they’re an excellent first line of defense for kids of all ages.

Online safety protocauls are needed now more than ever

A lot’s changed since the days of getting comfy in your desk chair for some quick-fire MSN Messenger after school. You’d send a few messages, choose a non-descript emoji (they’re way more specific these days), before calling it a day and heading out for bike-ride around the block.

Okay, maybe that’s painting an idyllic picture. But when you compare it with the current social media crisis, that whole era seems blissfully offline.

Today, legislators, specialists, activists, and parents across Australia are staring down a mammoth task. How do we protect our kids from an internet space that is increasingly vast, volatile, and prone to making young people particularly vulnerable? And whilst we (the millennial parents that we are) thought we were pretty smooth at this social media thing, the internet is evolving far beyond our experience.

Kids are being confronted with inappropriate, misleading, and harmful content by a simple scroll down TikTok, Instagram, Youtube, you name it. It might feel like we’re powerless in this, because studies show that completely cutting off internet access isn’t the answer either. Kids find loopholes, end up unprepared for the online world, or risk social isolation from their friends.

But we can take actionable steps to regulate what our child is exposed to. Enter parental controls.

What do parental controls do?

Parental controls allow you to block your child from using certain websites or apps; filter out adult, harmful, or disturbing content; put time limitations on overall use or on specific apps; and monitor what your child does online.

These controls are usually set at a user level on your devices – so a parent could set different controls for their 4-year-old and 13-year-old, and access the internet per normal on their own account.

At a device level, you can also set up parental controls around specific functions — for example, you can disable the use of the camera or ensure your child can’t make payments on apps or stores online.

How do parental controls work?

There are a number of different types of parental controls – and they all work slightly differently. 

Internet or mobile service providers: Some routers or service providers incorporate parental controls into their products and services. ASL your provider or search online to see how these work.

Operating systems: Apple, Android, and Windows devices have parental control features built in to desktops, laptops, and mobile phones. Click the links below to see how to set these up for your device:

Commercial software: You can purchase parental control software, or purchase a parental control as an added feature in a larger security program like Norton. This may be worthwhile for families who want an extra layer of privacy and control. If you’re looking for software in this category, the list of accredited filters in the Family Friendly Filter program is a great place to start. 

Streaming services: Most popular streaming and video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and ABC iView give you the option to set up separate accounts for your kids to ensure they do not see inappropriate content. These all work slightly differently — on Netflix, for example, content shown is based on rating and parent’s accounts with full access can be password protected. 

Search engines: Popular search engines like Chrome and Bing have a SafeSearch option to filter out inappropriate or explicit content from search engine results pages. As an extra precaution, you can install a child-friendly search engine on the devices your kids use most frequently as these can be more accurate.

Social platforms: Currently, the minimum age for social media use is 13 years, though TikTok does have a limited app experience called TikTok for Younger Users which has additional safety and privacy protections.

Age limits on social platforms are only loosely enforced, so keeping an eye on your child’s online activity via your parental controls will help you identify whether they have circumvented this restriction and signed up for an account. If your kids regularly use your devices, the best thing to do is to remember to logout when you finish browsing and set up app controls in their own account.

Talking about parental controls with your kids

It’s important not to try to ‘trick’ your kids into thinking the access you’ve granted them on certain apps and devices is all there is. They are inevitably going to encounter other devices at some point, so they will need to understand how to browse the internet and use apps safely. 

Instead, explain that the internet is a big, wide world containing all sorts of different content and experiences. As a child, tween, or teen, the parental controls you have put in place are designed to protect them from anything they’re simply not ready for yet. Explain that these controls are designed to help them gradually learn to be online independently and responsibly — it’s a skill we all have to learn, just like any other. 

It’s also worth having a conversation about online scams and people pretending to be someone they’re not. You can speak about this in the same way you might speak about strangers – there are a lot of people on the internet, and not all of them can be trusted. Encourage your kid to find a trusted adult if ever they feel unsure about an encounter they have online, and reassure them this would be a no-judgement zone. Even if they found their way through your parental controls or used an off-limits device, you’ll be there to help, not punish.

As your child gets older, they will crave more privacy and personal space which could make controlling and monitoring their online behaviours a little more complicated. Too much and they might feel you don’t trust them. Too little and they could be exposed to something or someone damaging online or end up the victim of a scam. 

Sitting down and agreeing on your rules as a parent and their boundaries as a growing teen can help here. Even small things, like knocking before you enter their room or staying out of their personal diary, can go a long way to granting independence without putting them at risk.

The ever-changing face of parental controls

As the internet continues to change, so too might the controls you might need to put in place for your kids. Stay aware, but don’t panic — remember that technology that protects our kids online is evolving just as quickly as the online landscape changes, and for every panic headline we see about kids online, there are thousands of positive stories about kids learning and connecting online too.

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