Apps and Internet Doorways: What Parents Need to Know

When I speak to parents about creating an Internet safer home, I cover a number of general parenting strategies that work for most families. Some deal with staying informed, while others include finding the right accountability software, or having the right conversations at the right times with their kids. But at a more tactical level, we discuss Internet doorways and apps at length. These two terms might seem unrelated, but they have a significant relationship when it comes to using the Internet.

Internet Doorways–the ways your son or daughter can access the world-wide web (and they are everywhere).

Apps (short for “application”)–software designed to satisfy a specific online purpose.

Parents really need to understand both in order to make wise decisions about Internet safety in their homes.

whats that app

Internet Doorways

When Covenant Eyes was founded in 2000, accessing the Internet occurred on large, stationary machines, through an Internet browser like NetScape Navigator, which we used to access our AOL e-mail account. (Did anyone else just say “You’ve got mail” to yourself?) What’s more, personal computers were expensive and didn’t exist in every home.

Compare that situation to today, where in 2015, according to a Common Sense Media survey, tweens (ages 8-12) use digital devices for homework and fun for around 6 hours per day, with 41% of that time spent on mobile devices. The average teen girl spends 1 hour 32 minutes per day using social media, and 66% of all teens use their mobile device to listen to music every day.

These tweens and teens are not using Navigator to access online content. They’re using apps in order to have a specific online experiences. In other words, they are using a different doorway than the one we used when we were growing up. It’s no longer just enough to monitor the browser.

Apps

In order to create an effective Internet safety strategy in any home, parents need to make an inventory of all of the different ways their kids can access the Internet, which includes having a working knowledge of all of the apps their kids are using and the risks and benefits of each.

For example, did you know?

  • Certain apps are marketed specifically towards tweens and teens, including Kik, YouNow, and ly. As a result, sexual predators naturally flock to these apps, where they can casually browse an endless supply of images and videos of naïve and unsuspecting young people (mostly girls) who sometimes say and show way too much all in the name of popularity.
  • All social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and ly, among others, state that users are supposed to be 13 in order to use them.
  • Certain apps are used anonymously, like Whisper, FM, or Afterschool, and as a result fuel impulsive, sometimes cruel teenage behavior, which has led to over a dozen cyberbullying-related suicides.
  • The social media app Instagram is so much more than just pictures, allowing students to portray a false self, whether tough, naughty, nice, sexy, or pretty, believing the lie that their worth is measured by the number of followers or likes.
  • Most social media apps, like Instagram and Snapchat, have no parental controls, making it extremely difficult to monitor activity for inappropriate content. Does your teen understand that in many states, taking any kind of nude photo of a minor (even if it’s of themselves) constitutes creation of child pornography?
  • There is a whole class of apps are intended to create a vault for secret pictures hiding behind the façade of a calculator or other innocent looking app.

Parents, we must wake up to the reality that APPS are where the action is. I have counseled too many families who could have avoided so much heartache if they would have done a better job controlling and understanding the types of apps their kids were downloading onto their smart devices.

So, parents, how are you doing with your kids? Do you know what apps they’re using?

Specific to the issue of pornography, mom and dad, did you know?

  • Instagram, Pinterest, Musical.ly, and Twitter are full of pornographic video and picture content, just a few clicks away in the “search” feature. Due to the lack of parental controls, these searches can be deleted without you ever knowing.
  • Through Instagram, kids can access Tumblr (rated 17+ in the app store for its large quantities of X-rated content), and the Google, Bing and Yahoo search engines without ever leaving the app. These search engines are unfiltered and unmonitored.
  • Kik gives kids access YouTube, Google, and a large number of other “sub-apps” within Kik, giving them access to search whatever they want.
  • Google, Yahoo or Bing search engine apps circumvent the parental controls you might set up through the “Restrictions” on your iPhone or iPad.
  • Through the “About” section of the Twitter and Facebook pages for Google, Bing or Yahoo, you can perform an unfiltered Internet search that isn’t covered by the “Restrictions” enabled on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod.

There are over 1.5 million apps in Apple’s store. Is anyone nervous yet? So, what’s the solution?

Protecting Our Kids

For every iOS device (iPod touch, iPad, iPhone), there are two amazing tools that come “factory” on all devices. In 60 seconds, just about any parent can enable both of them and go from Internet safety zero to hero.

1. Family Sharing:

The Family Sharing functionality allows parents (called “family organizers”) to approve app downloads on a child’s device from the parent’s phone, including in-app purchases.

To enable Family Sharing, follow this path on your Apple iOS device:

  • Click “Settings” (looks like 2 gray gears)
  • Click “iCloud”
  • Look under your name and click “Set Up Family Sharing”
  • Click “Get Started”
  • Assuming you are the “Family Organizer” (the one in control), click “Continue” and add as many family members as you would like.
  • Do you want to share your purchases as the adult? That’s your decision. Click “Settings” – “iCloud” – “Family” – click your name – then toggle on or off “Share my Purchases”

Situations where this works well:

  • You have a trustworthy kid, but you want to be involved in app decisions (good move).
  • You have a kid who is still in the Internet “training” phase (15 and under).

2. Restrictions:

The “Restrictions” feature is one of Apple’s most amazing tools for parents, and unfortunately, there isn’t anything like it for Android. Enabling “Restrictions” allows parents to set up certain controls at the device level, so that it doesn’t matter where the kid is using the device.

To enable restrictions, follow this path on your Apple iOS device:

  • Click “Settings”
  • Click “General”
  • Click “Restrictions” and select a 4-digit code that your kid won’t know. **Important! Don’t forget this 4-digit code, or you’ll have to perform a factory reset if you want to change “Restrictions” in the future.
  • From there, toggle off whatever you see fit. For example, you can turn off Safari, which is Apple’s Internet browser, if you want them to access the Internet through another accountable browser, like Covenant Eyes.

Earlier, we talked about controlling app downloads through “Family Sharing,” but, for young Internet users, you might consider turning off the App store altogether through “Restrictions.” Although it’s hard to find outright porn in the App store, with so many apps, plenty offer suggestive and offensive content in the app description that you might want to avoid.

We highly recommend using the Covenant Eyes browser app, but if you keep Safari as the Internet browser, be sure to select the “Website” option and then select Limit Adult Content. This prevents the user from deleting their browser history, and also provides an excellent level of filtering within Safari.

: Update: We released our brand new, completely overhauled Covenant Eyes Accountability app for iPhone® and iPad®. Our patent-pending technology extends accountability coverage on the iPhone and iPad in ways that no one else can. Learn more about the new app.

For Android™, there aren’t quite as many options. There isn’t a “Family Sharing” or “Restrictions” equivalent. This is why for young Internet users, who are still in the Internet training phase, an iPhone or iPad simply has better options for controlling apps.

On the other hand, Android allows Covenant Eyes software much more insight into how the device is being utilized. On Android, an accountability partner can actually see what apps are being used and even use Covenant Eyes’ very Android app lock feature, which might be helpful for certain situations where blocking the Google Play Store is appropriate.

July 2018 Update: We have released a new version of our app for Android. Learn more here.

Of course, in place of just setting parental controls, the best situation is one where kids have their own internal control. This is formed through constant conversation with caring adults who give their kids the tools for making wise technology choices, because, many Internet doorways are not within the control of mom and dad. Recently, we released our most comprehensive e-book yet, Parenting the Internet Generation which can help give parents tools for creating a family culture of openness and accountability.

Parents, remember, in the digital age, passive parenting is not an option. We believe that parents who are observant, engaged and informed often have kids who learn to use technology (including apps) well.

Note: the app-specific information and the information about Family Sharing and Restrictions above was used with permission from Protect Young Eyes, a Covenant Eyes ally that focuses on equipping parents and caring adults with information about apps, devices, and strategies for creating an Internet safer home.