Houston, we have a problem (two problems, actually).
During the stay-at-home orders and the summer months, screen time limits were non-existent in many households as parents allowed their children extra time on the Xbox or iPad for everyone’s sanity. Summer is over now and the 2020-21 school year has officially begun, but the pandemic continues. Schools across the country purchased additional devices to provide to students for remote learning. Many parents bought computers for students to use at home in the last few months, as well.
Reinstating those screen time limits after months of freedom will be difficult enough (problem #1). When you add extra technology and the required use for academic purposes (problem #2), keeping your student on task can become overwhelming very quickly.
Here are several options for parents looking to control technology use in their household.
Circle allows parents to take better control of the internet at home. It is the only device on this list that was specifically designed for parents. One primary advantage Circle has over other similar tools is that it does not require parents to install anything on the computer. This makes it easier to get set up and allows parents to filter school-issued devices, as well.
The setup is simple. Plug it in, connect it to your home wi-fi, and then all the configuration is done through an easy-to-use app. Parents can choose to set time limits for usage, and those limits can be different for each child. Content filtering (blocking out websites) also can be done on a per-child basis. For example, parents can choose to block YouTube for younger children and allow it for older ones.
The “Pause” and “Offtime” features are incredible options for parents who have children attending school remotely. Parents can choose to turn the internet off for a set amount of time for a group of devices. Imagine being able to block the Xbox/Playstation/Switch from using the internet until your student has their work completed. You can then turn the internet back on with a simple swipe of your finger, even if you’re not at home.
Other features such as “Bedtime” and “Rewards” make Circle one of my favorite devices for parents. Circle Mobile Management provides parents with similar functionality for older children with their smartphones. Circle costs $129 per year or $299 for a lifetime subscription.
One of the more recent trends in the last few years is for wireless routers to come with built-in software for filtering the internet. The wireless router is the physical device that sends out the wi-fi signal to your home. Every wireless router is different, though. They all have various features and different levels of difficulty to get configured.
Eero is my recommendation due to its ease of use, scalability and features. Eero is incredibly easy to get set up. An app on a smartphone or tablet will guide you through the setup. It took less than 10 minutes to complete the process in my home.
Parents can set up profiles for a group of devices to do things like pause internet access during dinner or enable internet content filtering to help keep children safe online. A pro subscription includes additional options such as threat detection and automatic ad blocking across all your devices.
Eero also lets you expand the wireless coverage in your house. The Eero system uses a scalable model to ensure you get the coverage you need, regardless of your home’s size. Smaller homeowners can get by on a single Eero base station while larger homes can utilize additional beacon units to carry the wireless signal throughout. Aside from Eero, Google Nest Wifi and Netgear Orbi are two different options to explore.
Expanding your home wireless network and adding built-in safety features might be the perfect solution for parents this school year.
The two options above use a physical piece of equipment to lock down various aspects of the Internet. OpenDNS uses software to prevent devices from accessing unwanted content, but it does not require you to install software to work. This makes OpenDNS a fantastic option because you can block content for all your wireless devices in one place. Oh, and it’s free.
There are a few downsides, though. It can be a bit tricky to set up; you may need to reach out to your local IT expert. It also lacks some of the features of other options, such as time limits, pausing the internet or blocking an app altogether. While it’s not as full-featured as the first two options, OpenDNS is a free solution that parents can use to filter out sites or entire categories of sites from all household devices.
Bark takes a different approach to content filtering. Bark monitors texts, email and more than 30 of the most popular apps for inappropriate content. The Bark system alerts parents based on the content it monitors. Parents can be alerted when the system sees activity of predatory behavior, suicidal ideation, and cyberbullying. Bark does not monitor things in real-time, though. The machine learning algorithm system needs time to review the content it scans for potential threats.
Suggestions are given as to the best course of action going forward based on what the system sees. Bark provides tools to limit screen time and filter out websites, as well. While I have not personally used this product, I have heard good things about it from those who have. Parents can choose from Bark Jr and Bark. Bark Jr handles blocking out bad websites and runs $5 per month. At $14 a month or $99 annually, Bark will tackle the list of things mentioned above.
The tools listed above can be so much more than a way to limit or restrict your kids. They can provide parents with a better idea of how their children are spending their time online — and the knowledge of what they are doing online can lead to some phenomenal conversations.
If you decide to use one of these tools, I will encourage you to consider all the positive ways you might connect with your kids based on what you see. Have a conversation about the crazy YouTube videos they watch or pause the internet from all devices during dinner so you can eat distraction-free.
Mike Daugherty is a husband, father of three young children, author, speaker, Google Innovator, and possible Starbucks addict. He is a certified educational technology leader who has served in a variety of roles through his 18-year career in public education. Currently, Mike is the director of technology for the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School district in Northeast Ohio. His blog, More Than A Tech, offers advice and ideas for parenting in a digital world.