An age-based guide to parental controls and internet safety for kids

Ages 5–8: Tablets and parental controls for the internet

According to Pew Research Center, 81% of kids this age receive their first tablet for streaming video and internet access. Which means now is the time to start learning about parental controls to monitor your kid’s activity online.

Parental controls: Tablets have parental control settings on the device. You can set screen time limits for Wi-Fi access, for example, such as 3–3:30 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can also control whether they make in-app purchases.

“Outsource the controls, but know the device,” says Moise. Take a day and learn the device yourself, inside and out. “I love the screen time settings, and I use restrictive mode so it takes away explicit content, and once it’s done it’s done.”

When it comes to monitoring kids’ activity online, the experts recommend additional tools such as Smart Family.

The conversation: “My kids have two hours to spend on their tablets. In restrictive mode, it simply shuts off,” Moise says. “If they want more time, they have to come back to me.” That’s ideal because kids establish the habit early that they need to come to you first when they want to use technology, Moise says.

Then, sit with your kid and talk through the parental controls together, Milovidov says. Point out the microphones on these devices and remind them the device is listening.

This is also when the digital stranger danger conversation starts. They should only interact with people online that they know from school. If a stranger reaches out, they should come to you first. Now is also the time to start talking about not sharing any personal identifiable information online, just like you wouldn’t give personal information to people you don’t know in public.

Ages 9–11: Gaming and smartphone parental controls

Sixty-seven percent get their first smartphone or gaming console around this age, according to the same study. At this age, parents can start to lean heavily into monitoring their kid’s online activity and messages because these devices are open to others via direct messages on social media, or while playing with other players in online gaming.

Parental controls: “I do random phone checks,” Moise says, where they hand over the phone and she checks it out. It sets the previous early on that she is going to be looking in from time to time, and it becomes a regular practice.

With apps such as Smart Family, you can limit calls and texts and set content filters, too. It’s also a good idea to set a time for Wi-Fi to shut off at bedtime to help kids unplug.

Some message monitoring apps will even flag specific risky words or pictures, and send you snippets of the conversation, Werle-Kimmel says.

“For example, my son was flagged for searching for something sexual, and it turned out he was looking for ‘bouncy balls.’” Werle-Kimmel laughs. “But I like these benign conversations because it makes the harder conversations easier, and they know I’m paying attention.”

With gaming, check the parental controls on games such as Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft to make sure the chats are dismantled so your kids can’t be contacted by people they don’t know.

The conversation: Plan to talk together about which parental controls have been enabled, and why. Your kids might push back and say you’re being too nosy and that it’s a violation of their privacy. But remind them that when a conversation is happening online, nothing is private, not even for adults, Werle-Kimmel says. “Anything I do online is public. They can have all the privacy they want with a pen and paper.”

Ages 13 and up: Social media parental controls

More than half of adults say they favor government regulation of social media, according to a recent Morning Consult report. State attorneys are also asking app makers such as TikTok and Snap to step up their in-app parental controls. And most social media apps require that kids be at least 13 to use them. But the goal is to have strong parental controls and content filters at the beginning that then ease up as your kids become older teens.

Parental controls: A first step for teens is to connect their social accounts to yours so you can easily access the interactions and messages. They learn that nothing online is private—you’re watching. Explain why: Not everything online is real, and you, as the adult, have more experience with noticing when something is off. That’s why you’re checking. Milovidov will often show her kids the phishy tricks that she gets as an adult to prove the point.

“I’ll show them when someone is trying to trick me on my phone,” she says, and explains further … “There are adults who fall into these traps. I don’t want you to be in a situation where people are trying to trick you.”

You can also look for the parental control settings within the apps, which limit your child’s interaction to only those contacts they know. Adding content filters in the early teens are essential at this stage of development.

The conversation: Walk through the restriction settings together and remind kids that you can do everything in your control, but accidents can still happen. Advertisements can still be intrusive, and they can slide into your private messages in apps in a variety of ways.

As you build trust together, you can also start talking about how you’ll start removing these restrictions as kids get closer to 18, because ultimately, they’ll need to learn how to navigate tech on their own.

“I like to let go of control as they’re turning to 16 or 17,” Werle-Kimmel says. “I’m pulling back, because at 18, they’re going to be able to do whatever they want.”

Will digital parenting ever get easier? Probably not. The good news is that once they reach the age of 18, they’re mostly on their own.

“My job is to help them have the good clothes,” Werle-Kimmel says. “So when they’re 18, they’ll still have those choices.”

Get more support with parental controls on social media, streaming video and text messages with Smart Family.

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