Protecting your kids online: What worked for our family.

TL;DR:  If you are a parent who wants to better manage how your kids use the internet – go buy a Circle with Disney box.  You can thank me later.

Back Story: One night last month just before going to bed I decided to review my nine year old daughters iPad browser history.  We are not some sort of crazy – spy on everything your kids do – sort of folks.  In fact in retrospect, we may have been too permissive on this previously.  However, I do think as parents monitoring and managing how your kids use the internet is part of your job as a parent.  So, periodically I check the kids internet history.

It had been a while since I had done that on my daughters iPad.  On this night, I was horrified by what I found.  Earlier that very evening she had been watching some generally kid friendly stuff on YouTube.  However, looking back through the history you could see how her curiosity led her down a bad path.  That bad path ended with her on the web site of a hate group, “learning” about a very sensitive topic.

Waves of emotion washed over me – anger, sadness, and a lot of determination to do something to prevent this in the future.  I showed my wife the iPad history and I went and got my daughter.  She came down to our room and we sat on our bed together.  For the next half an hour or so, my wife and I unpacked the topic she was curious about, shared our feelings and beliefs on the subject and explained that she had gotten some really bad information from a really bad source.  After a long, emotional discussion – we prayed together and she went on back up to her room to sleep.

I felt so bad.  How could I – a dad who is I.T. Infrastructure Engineer for a living – not have done a better job of protecting her from some of the awful stuff online.  After all, I install enterprise grade equipment for corporate clients that filters out this sort of stuff.  My first inclination was to buy a smaller version of what I generally deploy for clients and install it in my home.  However, even smaller versions of that equipment are very expensive and honestly total overkill for home use.  Then I remembered a friend mentioning that he had purchased and deployed Circle with Disney on his home network.  From what he had told me previously – it was working great for him.  So – at  11:43 PM on Saturday night, desperate to take some sort of action to solve this, I fired up my phone and ordered a Circle device for $99 from Amazon.  My expectations were pretty low.  So much consumer I.T. equipment is total garbage.  However, I was determined to do something.

Progress: A couple of days later, the Circle box arrived and I unpacked it.  Setting it up was very easy.  It would be easy for those of you who are less technical as well.  If you are comfortable with using an app on your phone, and you know your home wireless network name and associated password – you can do it.   You simply add the Circle app to your phone, and follow the directions.  The initial process is very well designed and the initial connection process is very easy.  Within a few moments, I had the device on my home network.


Circle App – Home Screen

The way the device works is by discovering devices on your network, and associating those devices with either a particular person, or the house in general then associating each of those entities with some basic use controls.  In our house we ended up with a lot of devices either associated with my wife, myself, or our house generally.  Those profiles and therefore those devices don’t have any sort of filtering or controls applied.  If my wife wants to look at crazy stuff online – who am I to stop her?  Ha!  Seriously – the device just ignores traffic from those devices.  This is great.  The last thing I needed was a consumer grade device interfering with my work use of our home internet connection.

I then associated the devices my kids use to profiles I setup for them.  Circle has some great pre-built filtering profiles that were very easy to customize.  Currently, both of my kids are setup with minimally customized versions of the “Kid” profile.  I turned all of this on without telling either of them.  I wanted to see if they would even notice.  They noticed.

Circle App – Profile Settings Screen

Issues: Shortly after the next time my daughter went online, she noticed that she could no longer see videos from one of the YouTube channels she was watching previously.  Circle was forcing her YouTube views into YouTube Restrictive Mode.  So, as far as she could tell – these videos were just totally gone.  Being the extremely reasonable parent that I am – ahem –  I explained that I had added some filtering and I asked her to come down so we could watch the video in question together.  We made it about five minutes in, and after being subjected to a good bit of profanity and a lot of generally tasteless content – I told her we would not be unblocking this.  This was a catalyst for a good follow up discussion with her about being careful what content you consume online.  Being the generally reasonable daughter she is, and knowing there is no way on earth I would change my mind, she went back to watching kid appropriate stuff.  Bingo!

  

Circle App – Per Profile – Filter Settings Screens

A bit later my son came down.  He is a bit older than my daughter, and he has a good history of being very reasonable with what he watches online.  We have had a lot of discussions about this.  He was incensed because he could not watch some of the YouTube gamer videos he likes to watch.  Given the age difference, and his generally good history of managing what he watches well – I turned YouTube Restrictive Mode off for him.  However, I reminded him we could and would monitor his activities online.  Him knowing this encourages reasonable use.

The only other issue we have run into since we installed Circle about a month ago was with a site my son uses for school.  Circle was blocking it.  I simply went in and added the site domain to his custom filter and allowed it – problem solved – all from my phone within a few seconds.

Circle App – Per Profile – Custom Filter Screen

Unexpected Benefits: One other issue this has solved for us is device use near bedtime.  We have times of day set (different on school days and weekend) where the kids internet access just turns off.  The kids are welcome to read, draw, whatever but screen time is over for the day.  Previously, each night we would tell the kids “Time for bed…” and they would reply with “Four more minutes please!” or something like that.  Now they know – at 8:45PM on school nights the devices just stop being able to get online, so they plan accordingly.  Bedtimes around here have gotten a bit easier.

Circle App – Per Profile – Bedtime Screen

We also have a setting in place that only allows the kids to be online one hour per day – unless my wife or I add more time by hitting the reward button.  To be honest – we hit that button quite a lot.  The way we use this currently is to make sure they do their school work etc before we add more time.  So – they can come home from school and chill online for an hour if they want – then it’s time for them to get homework etc done before they ask us for more time.

Circle App – Per Profile – Time Limits Screen

Summary: The end result of deploying Circle has been nearly ideal.  The kids are protected from a lot of content that is not appropriate for them.  In addition my wife and I have dramatically better control of how they use the internet in general.  We are also well positioned to manage this in the future.  As they get older – we can easily open this up further and further.

Caveat Emptor: I have no illusion that we are perfect parents.  Perfect parents would have managed this whole thing better from the beginning.  My goal here has been to be transparent and share what I’ve learned in the hopes that sharing this will help others.  What works for our family may not work well for your family.  I totally get that.  However, I will humbly suggest that if you are a parent who believes that its part of your responsibility to manage your kids internet use, that this would be a great tool for you to consider.

Oh yeah – one last thing: You know what my little girl sees when she goes to hate speech sites now?  This:

Yay!

To the team of engineers and developers who built and manage the Circle platform: You all are awesome!  Great work!  Thank you!