6 minute read

Apps and Internet Doorways: What Parents Need to Know

Last Updated: August 10, 2021

Chris McKenna

Chris McKenna is a guy with never-ending energy when it comes to fighting for the safety and protection of children. He is the founder of Protect Young Eyes, a leading digital safety organization. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, podcasts, and most recently on Capitol Hill for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony was the catalyst for draft legislation that could radically change online child protection laws. With expertise in social media usage, parental controls, and pornography use in young people, Chris is highly sought after as a speaker at schools and churches. Since 2016, Chris has worked with Covenant Eyes creating educational resources to help individuals and families overcome porn. Other loves include running, spreadsheets, and candy.

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.

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.

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.

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.

  • Comments on: Apps and Internet Doorways: What Parents Need to Know
    1. Alex on

      Hi Chris, I appreciate all your work and dedication to protecting families from inappropriate content. I find your post very helpful and informative. If I can contact you on a personal email I would like to share with you another way of unrestricted access to inappropriate content that I have found only one solution for and I am not sure whether I should share this with others to help protect them or not due to the difficulty of the solution. I would really appreciate a quick conversation with you in how maybe you can help by writing a post or finding another solution for the problem. Thank you Chris. God Bless.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi Alex – I’m sending you an email right now so that we can continue the conversation. I look forward to hearing from you!

      • Nathan on

        I disagree that there is not outright poem in the app store. You can download additional browser’s that are unmonitored and then delete the app to cover the trail. App store definitely needs to be blocked

      • T on

        Insread of just monitoring android phone. Or monitoring a google browser on a windows based system..how do you block all nude content completly so a kid doesnt see it all all…also..there is so much stuff on tv..called rated g or even pg that talk about details of sexually explicite things..seems to me the only real way to do it 100 percent is to shut off all electronics..unfortunately..life as we know it now is 100 percent dependent on it..like a bad addiction…kids can access that crap anywhere..and soon..we will be moving to 5g. (5th generation) speeds..which is scary..talk about total instant access..no more buffering..my son is 16..how do u block 100% nudity?

      • Chris McKenna on

        You can’t. We do our best with text-based ratings and we’re working on image-based recognition, but nothing is 100% safe. That’s why we have to teach our kids about what to do when they’re exposed and give them tools to make wise digital choices.

        Chris

    2. Rachel on

      These are great suggestions! What’s the best way to monitor Instagram and Facebook? Other than either shutting the app off entirely or checking regularly?

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        For Instagram, there’s not much. Here’s a video we recently did with more information on that app: https://youtu.be/yd0wOd4qQ6o

        As for Facebook, there are paid services that can monitor the app. If there are Facebook usage concerns, my suggestion is to delete the app, and force use through an accountable browser (like Covenant Eyes) by going to Facebook.com so that you can monitor the Facebook activity. The app obeys no parental control rules. It’s only through a browser that we can see what’s going on.

        Hope that helps!
        Chris

    3. Concerned Mom on

      This doesn’t really help parents of teenagers over 13 who demand independence and these apps and are unwilling to be treated like children. Schools now a days are giving them their own iTunes accounts to do their work and because of this can not be in “family sharing” so that doesn’t help either. It would be nice if you focused a bit more on a generation who is in the middle of development.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hello! Here’s my take. And, it might be a bit direct, because I’m passionate about helping parents see that kids just can’t dictate the terms with technology. For their own protection and safety! In the eyes of the law, the one paying for the service is the owner of the device. Teen can handle what the unmonitored and unfiltered internet throws at them! My daughter knows that as long as she’s under my roof, and I’m paying for the service, there’s no such thing as internet privacy on my wifi or on devices that I’ve paid for. It’s a family culture. Your child might have his/her own Apple ID but that should not preclude them from Family Sharing.

        However else I might be able to help, please let me know.
        Chris
        Covenant Eyes

    4. Jared Hendrickson on

      I would also add that Disney’s Circle device (https://meetcircle.com/mycircle/) has been a huge compliment to our connected home. I work in IT and have a barrage of devices at home, and Covenant Eyes gives me a great tool to filter and granularly control access on even our shared use computer, while the Circle device offers me a home network, app-specific enable/disable settings for a large number of apps, as well as custom blocklists, time limits and bed times. Now they’ve added a feature for kids on the go – using a Circle VPN connection on the mobile device to enforce the home circle restrictions while out on the cell network.
      It’s worth a look, as it takes a one time charge for the device and gives you very tight control over your home network. Every new device notifies you through the notification options on your smartphone, and you can immediately assign new devices to a person or zone through the mobile app. I believe the Circle Go feature is a monthly fee…

      I’d also add that for adults on mobile devices, Evernote, 1Password, and many many other apps provide a browsing function that cannot be locked down by an external app like Covenant Eyes. Accountability is the key to success, and using a combination of app install & content restrictions and local network filtering (like Circle) can help to give a person the time and technical harassment they need to think through their impulses.
      Of course, these tools only help parents and those who know they need to shield themselves against their own impulses – anyone who is dead set on getting around the system will find a way, and should probably be banned from the home network.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi Jared! Thanks for your response. We are very familiar with Circle and it’s a slick device for maintaining parental control over the home network. I think your thoughts are spot on!

        Chris
        Covenant Eyes

    5. Dawn Fidler on

      This is the big issue that unfortunately Covenant Eyes really whiffs on. I am sure there are tech reasons why CE cannot monitor everything on a phone, but it is so disappointing that it cannot. Nearly every app has a way to access the internet and so what CE offers for iphones is not much help. You can’t even allow usage of something as simple as Google Maps app! Someone has got to figure out how you can allow all apps to be used with accountability/filtering on all of them. Smart phones will continue to increasingly dominate all internet usage and I am afraid CE will quickly become more and more obsolete as less people use computers where there programs work well. Don’t get me wrong – I am so grateful for CE, but also wish there was more they could do.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi Dawn – we have longed for more “reach” into iOS, and we are on the brink. Please stay tuned for something we hope to launch this summer that should give us much more insight into non-browser activity on an iPhone.

        Peace, Chris
        Covenant Eyes

    6. Anna on

      Thank you for providing consciencous families with this information. Someone once showed me that you could go through an Iphone or just Google….and click any letter of the alphabet and turn it onto to images. there isn’t one letter that doesn’t produce sexually suggestive pictures.

      Reply
    7. Anna on

      I was once told there is yet another entry? Enter an app or Simply Google any letter of the alphabet and open on Images…scroll down. there is not one letter that doesn’t promote a sexually suggestive or explicit image.

      Reply
      • Leah Tinoco on

        This is so true. I just googled the letter A using the CE browser on my daughter’s phone and sure enough explicit images come up. My daughter loves to look up dog breeds and see images of things she would like to purchase on Amazon, yet images are everywhere. This is so frustrating that the porn industry is infiltrating everything. Is there a way to block these images?

      • Chris McKenna on

        Hello, Leah – are you using our filter in the browser? That should allow for Google Safe Search, eliminating much of what you are seeing. For additional assistance, please contact customer service and they can help: 1-877-479-1119
        Chris

    8. Amber Orduña on

      Thank you so much for this. It needs to be out there. I knew this stuff BECAUSE I research BUT most don’t. Thank you for caring enough to send this out!!

      Reply
    9. Kristen on

      Thank you so much Chris. I had no idea that these content monitoring and filtering things come in factory settings. So, if you are in for posting more blogs on parental control, can you write a review on Parental Control Software/Apps? That would be a great help. Thanks.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi Kristen – I think you will see more parental control postings in the future. It’s one of my passions! I use a lot of parental control content from my own website (www.protectyoungeyes.com) to help at Covenant Eyes whenever possible. Be well!

        Chris

    10. Linnette on

      I was under the impression that Covenant Eyes for Android could now monitor the Facebook app. Am I mistaken?

      Reply
      • Annelise Hoshal on

        Hello Linnette,

        You are correct. We are able to monitor the activity inside of the Facebook app with our latest version. CLICK HERE for a full list of the apps that Covenant Eyes monitors on the Android. If you have any further questions feel free to contact our Customer Service at 877.479.1119.

        Best regards,
        Annelise

    11. Heather Arnold on

      Can covenant eyes block porn on the Pinterest app on iPad and iphone?

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi, Heather – no, we don’t block content with apps. That is a secured connection. We’re working on technology to begin blocking at the screen level that will break through that limitation. Stay tuned

        Chris

    12. Paul on

      Do you have a list of apps to especially watch out for? I see that you say that you monitor Facebook, and yet if I send a website link to myself using Facebook Messenger I can freely access the web via Facebook Messenger and it seems to be unmonitored and unfiltered (your covenanteyesfilter.com address isn’t blocked).

      The contacts app (on a Samsung S7 – but maybe on all Android devices) is also a way to view the Internet freely. Just add the website address for a site you want to view to a contact and then click on that link. It opens in its own internal browser and doesn’t seem to be filtered or monitored.

      I am fairly technically minded, and yet I didn’t for a minute think about these two doorways – and yet I’m sure a tech savvy teen would work this out pretty quickly if they wanted to get around covenant eyes.

      Would appreciate any information you have on other apps that someone might not consider as a doorway.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi, Paul – the list of apps that provide secret doorways to Google is endless! It’s for this reasons that our new CE app is so awesome for forcing Google and Bing safe search no matter where you go.

        For a great list of apps and explanations – a very thorough analysis, please visit this site, which works very hard at stay up-to-date on each app, their features, and ways that they can be exploited: https://protectyoungeyes.com/apps/

        Warmly,
        Chris

    13. Bridget M Pate on

      Is this the right app for my husband to get he is a sex offender and his probation officer needs the app downloaded to his phone so that they can monitor his Facebook and messenger is this the right app to use before I use my card here is what the app says covenant eyes app please get back to me thanks

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi, Bridget – for what you’re describing, we are not the right solution. We won’t monitor the activity within the apps, instead, only that he used Facebook.com or Messenger. Depending on the type of device he has (Apple or Android), there are very limited means why which you can monitor that level of activity without “breaking” into the device’s operating system. BUT, if he has an iPhone, and his probation officer removes social media apps, sets restrictions, and forces all activity through the Covenant Eyes browser, then, we will have much greater insight into where he’s going.

        If you call a customer service rep at 877-479-1119, they can help clarify anything that doesn’t make sense.
        Regards, Chris

    14. Hannah on

      Hi Chris! I just turned 18. I wanted to say I really really hope one day you can get to where covenant eyes can also monitor social-media apps.

      No kids these days use their Safari to use Instagram or snapchat. My generation uses apps instead of the internet browsers.

      I really wish you guys could add a setting where you could monitor apps like Instagram, snapchat, and Facebook. If you can please show me how! Thanks!

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi, Hannah – I do have some ideas! But, overall, the app companies have secured almost all of their content, and unless they open up the APIs to their software to awesome parental control companies like Bark (which monitors Snapchat and Instagram better than most). Honestly, so many of the social media issues that we deal with today are an issue because too many parents allow too many kids to have access to these apps before they’re ready. These platforms are built by adults with adults in mind and are not kid-friendly. Parents need to wait longer, teach better, and monitor more effectively. Covenant Eyes is a start, but we’re not a replacement for good parenting :) There, I’ll get off my soapbox! But, obviously, it’s a topic I’m passionate about, and I share your hope for greater digital transparency in the future.

        Be well!
        Chris

    15. Angela on

      Hi. Just wondering whether the useage/browsing history reports would include eg videos watched in You Tube app, and cover all browsers/apps? I mainly want something whihc provides monitoring for an older teen, but want to make sure it monitors everything.
      Thanks

      Reply

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