Safe Internet for Smartphones (And Computers)

I hate not having an answer – especially to a really good question. When I find that answer, though, I want to share it. This article explains the answer I now have on how to help teens stay safe with smartphones on the internet, and how I finally found that answer.

Around our church, I’m generally known as being somewhat “with it” when it comes to technology. I’m usually not surprised when someone asks me a technical question, even when it’s a hardware question I can’t answer. (As a software geek, my philosophy is, “If you can touch it, I probably can’t fix it.”)

What advice would you give to help parents protect their teens with smartphones?

But I wasn’t prepared for our youth pastor’s question – and I should have been. He asked me, “With internet access everywhere now, what advice would you give to help parents protect their teens with smartphones?” Here are these young men and women, still learning their way around in life. We send them out into a world that’s eager to draw their hearts away from God. We give them a hand-held computer with complete access to all the filth of the world, and with no safety net – no protection to help keep their minds pure. What can parents do?

After a “Hmmm” and an “Um” and a “Well” or two, I shared what there was of the Dwire strategy. Our home internet connection is filtered. For our teen we got a smartphone without a data plan. Our kid will be fine. We’re covered. At home we’re filtered. With no data plan, there’s no internet on the go. No problem.

I knew it was a poor answer.

It didn’t really help anyone else. That was part of it. But it also wasn’t going to last us very long, either. Our teen will soon become a college student. On a secular campus (or any public hotspot, for that matter), that smartphone won’t need a data plan to reach the internet. Neither will the tablet or the laptop. No filtering, no monitoring, no protection at all. We needed a better solution.

Block or Monitor?

Before I could find a better solution, I needed to define the problem clearly. Was I trying to make it impossible for my teen to reach the sinful side of the internet? Did I want to block the bad sites, or did I just need to know what was going on? Maybe I just wanted a monitor.

In my case I opted for monitoring software, sometimes called “accountability” software. Here’s why:

  • Blocking, or “filtering” software often prevents access to legitimate sites, requiring an override. I won’t always be there to override the block. The frustration of being prevented access to a needed information – without any option to overcome it – casts the software as a foe to be fought, rather than as a friend who is helping. When they’re out on their own, they’ll be all too eager to get rid of it.
  • As I train my teens, I want them to develop their own heart for purity. If they feel free to go all the way to the (arbitrary) walls I put up, they are far less likely to develop their own internal fences. By monitoring the choices they make on their own, I have greater opportunity to help shape those choices.
  • A monitoring report gives me a chance to discuss “somewhat questionable” choices. These choices would not have been blocked by software, but they may still warrant some gentle parental guidance.
  • My goal is for my children to establish a pattern of self-discipline that will serve them even after they leave my house. I will not be able to enforce filtering when they’re gone, but I can help them set up a system of voluntary accountability that they view in a positive light.

I still believe in filtering. We still have filtered internet in our house – where Mom and Dad are available to override when needed. And my kids know that they must be extra careful with the internet when they connect anywhere else. With or without the protection of our filter, they know we’ll have a conversation about their activity long before it becomes a real problem.

Update: 12/30/2015 – The original article did not explain how we filter the internet in our house. OpenDNS, the solution we had been using, was too complicated, technical, and unpredictable to explain in a simple article. We now have a new whole-house filtering solution that does not need a geek to help set it up. Details at Finally! A Home Internet Filter for Non-Geeks

Can’t I Just Check Browser History?

There are a number of problems with relying on browser history to tell you what’s happening on a computer:

  1. You have to look on every browser for every user for every device. This is a tedious exercise. Intentions may be strong, but I don’t know of many parents who will faithfully collect their teens’ devices and log on as the teen to check every browser history. For those who do, the constant ritual can feel like an accusation, becoming an unnecessary point of contention between parent and teen.
  2. You have to know what browser they’re using. Most devices will allow you to install multiple ways to access the internet, and each one keeps its own history. If you depend on checking history, you have to be sure you know where to find every browser they use.
  3. “Stealth” or “Incognito” modes leave no history. Under mantle of privacy, most browsers now offer a way to go anywhere on the internet without leaving a trail in your browser history. This mode is extremely easy to turn on, and it leaves no trace for parents.
  4. History can easily be deleted. If your teen starts to suspect that you’ll question a site they visited, it’s fairly simple in most browsers to just remove individual items from the browser history. As a parent, you’ll never know anything’s missing.

To get a true picture of the internet use on a computer, I knew I needed special software to record all activity.

How Many Computers?

Did I mention we’re a rather technical family? Over the years, we’ve collected a Windows laptop, three Macs, an iPad, an iPhone, two Android phones, and two Android tablets. If any one of them leaves this house, it can access unfiltered internet through a public hotspot. And to reach my goals of shaping my children’s choices, we need to see where they go regardless of what device they use, even at home. To me, that means I want a solution that will monitor every computer we have.

Yes, even mine.

If I want my kids to keep this system of accountability after they leave home, they need to see that I value the same system for myself.

That’s a lot of computers, and a lot of different kinds of computers. It’s not going to be easy to find one solution that will cover them all. The technology is all very different.

That software does exist.

Which Software?

In my search, I was able to find two systems that offered any kind of filtering or monitoring solution for Windows, Macintosh, iPhone/iPad, and Android. Those two options are CovenantEyes and Accountable2You.

CovenantEyes


Only CovenantEyes offers an option to include filtering, though filtering is not available on Android. My biggest challenges with CovenantEyes were these:

  1. At the time of this writing – its Android software still works only in the default browser that comes with your device. To get around the system, you need only install another browser.
  2. Even in the default browser, “Stealth” or “Incognito” modes are not tracked on Android. These modes are very easy to turn on, leaving very little accountability on Android devices – even for those who want to be monitored.

Update: On 8/11/2015, Covenant Eyes announced to its affiliate partners (such as Edify Hub) that their new Android application now offers accountability across multiple applications and browsers, and includes coverage for “Stealth” and “Incognito” modes. Filtering is still not available on Android, and the list of monitored applications, while much larger than before, is still limited.

But if you really want filtering built into the software, and you’re not monitoring an Android device, then CovenantEyes may be a good choice for you. It costs $9.99/month for one user account, plus $1.50/month to add filtering. The accountability reports will not tell which activity came from which device, so you’ll need a separate account for each user if you need to know who did what. Extra user accounts cost an additional $2/month plus $1.50/month for filtering. (prices updated 8/12/2014)

Update: (8/21/2014) CovenantEyes now offers family pricing, which includes an unlimited number of users for the same family – including optional filtering, where available, at no extra cost – for a flat rate of $13.99/month.

If you sign up through Edify Hub’s referral link, CovenantEyes will give you the first 30 days free. A portion of your subscription will also help offset some of Edify Hub’s expenses. It won’t cost you any extra, but it will be a big encouragement to me, so thank you for using that link if you want to sign up with CovenantEyes.

Accountable2You


For me, Accountable2You was the only solution I could find at all that would reliably monitor Mac, Windows, iOS and Android devices. Even nicer was the price. At $4.99/month – for all of our devices, for the whole family – Accountable2You also has the lowest subscription fee of the solutions I checked.

Update: (8/26/2015) Accountable2You now offers Family, Group, and Small Business plans. While the individual plan still allows unlimited devices, each with its own set of accountability partners, these additional plans allow the creation of additional accounts with different options for billing and other preferences. 

Here were some other things that set Accountable2You apart for me:

  • I can set up each device with its own set of accountability partners, and each device will send out a separate email report. This helps me know which activity happened on which device.
  • For each accountability partner, I can choose daily or weekly reports. This lets me tailor the reporting to suit each accountability partner’s email preferences.
  • “Highly questionable” activity triggers an email within an hour. I can also add in my phone number to get a text message immediately whenever “highly questionable” activity occurs. The quicker I know about questionable activity, the faster I can intervene and prevent serious problems.
  • Attempts to disable the software or change the reporting options also trigger alerts. Because they know I’ll find out if they try to change anything, my kids are far less likely to be tempted to get around it.
If you sign up through Edify Hub’s referral link, Accountable2You will contribute a portion of your subscription to help offset some of EdifyHub’s expenses. It won’t cost you any extra, but it will be a big encouragement to me, so thank you for using that link if you want to sign up with Accountable2You.

Accountable2You automatically gives you the first ten days free. Use the coupon code edifyhub during checkout to add another free month, for a total of 40 free days. (Updated 8/26/2015)

How Do I Set It Up?

Both CovenantEyes and Accountable2You have step-by-step instructions for installing their software on each kind of device.

One other important step for iPhones and iPads is to disable Safari. Because of the restrictions Apple places on iOS apps, the only way to monitor internet activity – for both CovenantEyes and Accountable2You – is to replace the Safari with a custom browser. In order to monitor an iPhone or iPad reliably, you’ll need to set up Parental Controls to disable access to Safari and prevent installing new software.

I’ve put together some videos to show you – step-by-step – how to set up and install Accountable2You on your Macintosh, Windows, iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. Visit our Accountability Resources page to see those videos, along with other articles to help with internet accountability.

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