Being a parent has gotten pretty technical. Our kids are immersed in a world of online learning, social media, cyberbullying and Internet addiction. All of it comes to their impressionable minds through a limitless, invisible signal. I’m a fan of that signal. Much of what rides in on it is incredibly enriching. For example, my son's knowledge of ancient history—a subject rarely taught in any of his schools—well exceeds that of most adults I know. This is because he has a curious mind and has known how to tap that signal to satisfy his curiosity since I showed him how to do a Google search when he was 4. But some of what comes in over that signal is too mature, violent, dangerous or distracting for a young mind. And all of it needs to be turned off regularly so that mind can pursue activities in the real world.
I have two teens, and I've struggled with managing the signal throughout their lives. I know I’m not alone. In fact, a recent Microsoft survey found that, overwhelmingly, parents let their children use technology (specifically computers and gaming devices) unsupervised starting at the age of 8. Is that because parents don’t want to supervise their kids or because supervision is a technical nightmare? I’m going with the latter. That's why I've taken advantage of my access to high-tech companies to harass, cajole, badger and wheedle them to build better tools to help parents manage the information that comes in through the signal. But until yesterday, the tool I've been asking for has been in short supply.
I feel pretty strongly that control over this signal has to happen—first—at the Wi-Fi router. If it doesn’t, I have to install something on every device my kids use, which—at least in my house—is difficult to negotiate. While I don’t mind getting technical to install a router, I don’t think consumers should have to. So I want a router that’s plug-it-in-and-use-it simple. Next, I want it to let me assign my daughter’s tablet, computer and phone to rules that apply to her alone, not to individual pieces of hardware. In her case, I want to shut off the signal after her bedtime and set an appropriate age restriction on content. I also want separate rules, adjusted for his age, for my son. But when one of my teens goes rogue and blows off chores or gives me attitude when I ask for help with dinner, I want to be able to quickly and easily, amid the fray of family life, change those rules to reflect a demotion in household privilege. I don’t want to have to speak in code to set any of this up. I don’t want to have to access software that’s only on my computer. And when I've decided my kids are awesome and mature enough to handle it (which they usually are), I want to be able to give them complete freedom—with some assurance that I’ll know if they slip into some dangerous corner of the World Wide Web. Yesterday I finally installed a router in my home that gives me all of this: the Skydog Family Router Service ($149 with three years of subscription service).
Easy to Use
I've installed a lot of routers over the years, and this was the easiest to install by far. It asked me some questions. I answered them (while my old router was still delivering the Internet). Then I plugged it in and it went to work and set everything up the way I wanted it.
Now that I have the router installed on my network, I control it through an online portal. I can access that portal from any Web connection. It lets me see every device on my network (most of the devices have easy-to-understand names such as “Christina’s IPad”), assign those devices to users and set up rules for each user. My son is 17, but he has a hard time shutting off the signal and going to bed. So while I didn’t do much to filter his access to information, I did locate his phone, tablet and computer and set them all to go dark at midnight. There's no reason for him to be idly surfing that late. I tracked down my daughter’s devices too, gave her a bedtime of 11 and shut off Netflix during her homework hour. (TV is her procrastination Achilles heel.)
Control and Monitoring
Since my son isn't exactly a child, I don’t do much to filter his Web access, though I could block specific sites or choose a level of filtering set up by Skydog. If he's having trouble staying focused on homework, I could set up a schedule that blocks specific distractions during specific hours. But since I didn’t do any of that, I asked the service to monitor his Web history so I can check once in a while to be sure there's nothing going on I need to worry about. I also set up an alert that lets me know if one of my kids visits a site I consider dangerous, such as one of those that lets them video chat with strangers.
I know I can’t stop the signal. I wouldn’t want to. But I am glad to finally have a simple way to control it.
Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.