How to Use a Smartphone Tracker to Protect your Kids on Social Media

by Screen Time Team on 11/12/2019

Social media is a fact of life, and it can be a great thing. It lets us stay in touch with friends and family, gives us leads on jobs, and helps us coordinate big events. But there’s a dark side to everybody being in touch with everyone else, and it needs to be kept in check.

A Riot Of Social Media

Social media is an app hothouse. No sooner do parents hear about a new social media app before it runs its course with young people and becomes “uncool.” Worse, there’s a limit to what these apps can do to prevent abusive behavior or dangerous individuals from signing on. Many simply don’t have the money or staff to police their users, especially if their user base grows rapidly.

Add to this that criminals often know their targets, and you have a serious social media problem. Few kids are likely to trust a total stranger asking them to meet them at the mall without their parents, but what about somebody they interact with every day?

There are steps you can, and should, take to increase social media safety, such as regularly talking with your kids about what they’re using and why, and teaching them to spot manipulators. But rather than attempt to track individual apps, or looking through their phone, it makes more sense to track them at the platform on which the apps are used.

Teen looking at her phone.

A tracker can also be used to make sure kids are where they’re supposed to be throughout the day. That said, a tracker can only track the device as long as its enabled, and the location of a device is not necessarily the location of its owner.

Action, though, is better than reaction. Parental control apps can be used to shut down messaging apps and social media sites, keep them from being downloaded or accessed, or limit how much time is spent on them. Some apps also are “unzipped,” meaning that functions such as messaging are on separate apps, so you can let teens onto Facebook while shutting off Messenger.

However, both trackers and apps are only a back-up to honest, open communication and education. Parents and kids need to have a discussion about the rules, why they’re in place, and what kids need to look out for when they’re on the internet. Make sure that kids know:

  • How manipulators operate and how to spot them
  • How to “trust but verify” with relatives and family friends
  • When to come to you when they feel there’s a problem or point of concern
  • How to handle abusive or rude people
  • What to do when somebody asks them to meet them in a public place away from their parents

Part of growing up is learning how to engage with the world. Smartphone trackers and parental control apps can serve as “training wheels” for developing good judgment. To learn more about Screen Time and smartphone tracking, try it for free!

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Does your Child use a Kindle Fire? Here’s a Parental Control Guide.

by Screen Time Team on 06/11/2019

Contrary to popular belief, kids read more than adults, in part because they’re expected to and in part because they have more time to sit down with a good book. That said, parents are reasonably concerned about how much time kids spend watching TV, playing games, and otherwise engaged with screens. 

The Kindle Fire can be a useful device for kids, since it’s tied directly to your Amazon account, giving you more control over content. But to get the most out of it, and to keep kids away from shows and books they probably shouldn’t experience yet, you should both use the parental controls the device offers and implement your own.

The Kindle Fire’s Parental Controls

Amazon allows parents to configure parental controls from anywhere, including your personal phone. The Parent Dashboard lets you track what they’re watching, reading, and playing, and how much time they’re spending doing it. You also can set filters for content, whitelist apps to allow them to do things, set time limits and a bedtime for the device, and give your kids educational challenges.

Sound great? Unfortunately, there’s a catch: Amazon wants $3 a month (from Prime members) to $5 a month (non-members) for the service. There’s also a yearly price available. And it is worth remembering that this is Amazon’s program on Amazon’s device; if the company is faced with a situation where it needs to choose between parents’ interest and profit, they’re likely to put their own concerns first.

Besides, you need to have more than one tool to enforce the rules. This is why every Kindle Fire should have a third-party parental control app installed.

Kindle Fire And Third-Party Parental Control Apps

Teenager looking intently at his phone.

Installing third-party parental control apps can help you keep a handle on the Kindle. In addition to features like instant pause, third-party apps serve as a backup to parental controls. They’re also not beholden to content companies or the device manufacturer, so you have an impartial moderator for content.

In Amazon’s case, you also don’t have to subscribe to a separate service and then pay on top of that. Some parents may not be comfortable at being forced to pay a device manufacturer for the right to assert control over something they own. Considering the history of ad-blockers, where sites rapidly began paying to have their ads excepted from the program, third-party apps may be a simpler approach in the long term.

Parental control apps also give you the ability to ease kids into responsible screen use. It’s great that you can challenge your kids via their Kindle, but what really matters is that they understand why they’re learning and why it’s important to put their screen down. 

And as kids grow, go to school, and develop more interest in different topics, you need to be able to change the rules to accommodate that growth. The more adaptable the app, and the more tools you have to work with your kids on these questions, the easier that process will be.

Parental control apps help parents and kids get a handle on the ever-more-complicated world of devices, apps, and the internet. To learn more, sign up today!

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Samsung Users: Here’s Your Parental Control Guide

by Screen Time Team on 23/10/2019

When it comes to Android devices, Samsung is undeniably the world leader, not just in phones, but in tablets, televisions, and a host of other devices driven by Android as well. That presents a challenge for parents, since they need to enforce the rules when it comes to apps and screen time. Here’s how to prepare a Samsung device for family use.

What To Know

Unfortunately, there are no Android-level controls on your phone, unlike iOS. While iOS hardly offers the most comprehensive set of tools for parents to keep track of kids, the lack of tools at the operating system level on Android means you’ll need to download and install a third-party parental control app to be absolutely sure kids are following the rules. As a back-up to this app, you’ll need to set Google Play to prevent app downloading and in-app purchases.

Those rules, and what you’re doing to put them in place, should be completely clear. Family contracts, written rules, and discussions about why the rules are in place will be important. If kids understand what you’re worried about, they’re more likely to consider their behavior. Parental control apps are, in the end, just a way to enforce the rules. The best way to make sure kids develop safe and healthy relationships with their screens and the people they meet using them is with open communication and understanding.

Young teen lying down looking at her phone.

Google Play Services Parental Controls

This setting won’t affect any content on your children’s devices before you implemented the settings. Also, it won’t filter the content of apps, such as messaging apps, or allow you to set any device restrictions beyond app downloading and in-app purchases.

It’s also important to know that these settings are not automatically uploaded to the apps you allow to be downloaded. While Google Play will block in-app purchases on any app, you’ll need to set parental settings on each new app you allow your kids to download. It’s advisable to download apps like YouTube Kids and delete the “full” versions of these apps before you reconfigure Google Play. Here’s what to do.

  • Open the Google Play Store and press the menu button in the upper left-hand corner. It will be an icon with three lines, next to the search box.
  • This will open a menu on the side. Scroll down and choose Settings.
  • On the page that opens, choose Parental Controls.
  • On the next page, toggle Parental Controls to “On,” and create a PIN. Use a PIN you’ll remember, and that your children won’t guess. 

Then configure apps, movies, films, TV, and magazines to the appropriate maturity level.

Installing A Parental Control App

For any features beyond apps, you’ll need to install a third-party parental control app on your children’s device to have control over the type of content they access. No major phone manufacturer is currently including the features that parents demand. 

Android parental controls are a good start, but they generally don’t provide the level of protection most parents want for their kids on mobile devices. Screen Time is a parental control app that you can install on all your kids’ devices and customize to the level of protection that is appropriate. To learn more about our parental control app, try it for free!

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Is New Instagram ‘Threads’ App Safer Than Snapchat?

by Screen Time Team on 16/10/2019

Stealing is the highest form of flattery, and Snapchat must feel incredibly flattered lately, because Facebook has just announced Threads, an app for Instagram that sounds, looks, and feels suspiciously like Snapchat. But there are a few important differences between it and Snapchat (the “self-destructing” image app) that parents should know about.

What Is Threads?

In Facebook’s words, Threads is a photo-sharing app for your Close Friends, that is, the people you’ve designated as a Close Friend on Instagram. In reality, it’s basically another messaging app, just more photography-based and tied to Instagram. Threads is as much a reaction to “finstas” or fake Instagrams – accounts that users share only with actual close friends – as it is to Snapchat.

Is Threads Safe?

Whether Threads is safe depends on your definition of “safe.” Leaving aside the fact that there are risks inherent to all social media, there are a few particular points of concern for parents. The first is “Auto Status,” an optional setting that will update a person’s list by drawing from location data, movement, and network connections to tell friends where a person is, in vague terms. The example Facebook gave was if you go to a coffee shop, Auto Status would update to “At a cafe” rather than giving a specific address.

The second concern is that friends’ lists aren’t shared with other users unless you tell them in person. If you’re worried about your teen’s less pleasant friends, this may be a way they talk to them without your knowing, for example. It is also not clear at this point whether Threads will share Snapchat’s parental controls.

That said, there are some upsides to the app. For example, users can’t contact users they’re not “Close Friends” with, so there’s no spam to deal with. And so far, there are no addictive features like Snapstreaks. But these advantages may not outweigh the downsides, for many parents.

Girl holding a pumpkin.

Should Parents Worry About Threads?

Worry? Probably not, but it’s worth looking at the settings of your parental control app and asking yourself whether Threads contradicts your family’s general rules. The app, in a broader sense, may not be around for long because the history of Facebook is littered with failed messaging apps. Remember the now-defunct Notify or Facebook Email? Still, however, parents should know what Threads is so they can decide if it’s acceptable for their kids to use.

It’s more a question of how it’s used and how that may intersect with your broader family agreement about phones, messaging, and media that should concern you. If there are certain people you don’t want your kids to talk to, Threads could be a problem. But Threads is designed to be curated, so if children are willing to share who their “Close Friends” are with you, then this may be a good introduction to the wider world of photo social media.

Finally, parents should consider the matter of privacy. One of the virtues of parental control apps is that they give kids a measure of personal freedom that’s lacking when you’re constantly looking over their shoulder. Instead of a guard, they have boundaries they can’t cross, and this can more effective in many families. Everyone needs some degree of emotional space, especially online, and Threads may be a useful way to grant it, within reason.

If you want to learn how to balance your kids’ smartphone usage against their other responsibilities,  sign up for Screen Time.

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Should You Create a Phone ‘Contract’ for Your Kids?

by Screen Time Team on 10/10/2019

There are many moments that mark kids growing up, in big ways and in small ways. Increasingly one of these turning points is a child’s first cell phone. Parents may understandably be hesitant to hand over an expensive and powerful device without setting some ground rules, and in some cases, a “family contract” covering phone use can make a lot of sense.

What Is A Family Phone Contract?

At its most basic level, a family phone contract is getting the rules down on paper. Like any contract, it contains the responsibilities of all parties involved, the cost of not fulfilling those responsibilities, and conditions for the contract to be renegotiated over time. The sample contracts floating around online generally include requirements for parents as well, usually underscoring that kids imitate parents, so parents need to set a good example and be responsible as well.

And like any contract, it can be somewhat contentious. We’ve all been in a situation where we’re handed a paper to sign and we resent the implication that we have to do so, that otherwise we can’t be trusted. Our children are no different. Still, the contract can have value, provided it makes sense for your family and provided you stick to it.

When Should I Consider A Phone Contract?

The usefulness of a contract really depends on two factors: How you think your family will embrace it, and how complicated a “deal” you have to work out for a cell phone in the first place. You know your family better than anybody, so there may be situations where you simply install a parental control app or buy a phone with limited function, lay down the law, and deal with any special exceptions later. And no contract can take the place of a long, clear discussion of your concerns and why your kids need to respect them.

Inevitably, though, nuances will start to present themselves as kids get older, make new friends, and start taking other steps towards new experiences like travel and after-school responsibilities. Here, especially if you’ve got detailed concerns, a contract might make sense just to help your kids figure out the rules!

Parents sitting with their daughter on a couch.

What Should Be In A Phone Contract?

It’s probably not the best idea to use a stock contract online; every family is different. Here are a few things to consider with your contract:

  • Whether device use for schoolwork counts towards overall screen time.
  • Where and how your parental control app is applied.
  • How kids can earn new privileges, and when you’ll consider granting them.
  • What happens if kids don’t meet their responsibilities, or you don’t meet yours.
  • When the contract can be reconsidered and why.

Every contract will be different, and different children within a family will probably have different contracts. Your teen driver with a job will have different rules than your preteen still riding the bus, for example.

One thing that shouldn’t be negotiable is a parental control app. Parental control apps give you more options, not just for enforcing a family phone contract but for addressing issues that might come up that the contract doesn’t cover. To learn more about how parental control apps can keep the rules in place, try ours for free!

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Kids and Phones: Is Gabb Wireless the Answer to Parental Concerns?

by Screen Time Team on 02/10/2019

The debate over smartphones and kids has been raging since the first iPhone debuted. And one startup, Gabb Wireless, argues that it has the answer: Make smartphones as dumb as possible. But is that a winning strategy?

What Is Gabb Wireless?

Gabb Wireless is a startup mobile network virtual operator, or MVNO, hoping to raise money via crowdfunding to launch a company with phones aimed at kids. The phones take the stance that the best way to protect kids is to limit what’s on the phone. As a result, according to Gabb, the phones have no browser, app store, games, or social media apps. You can make calls, send texts (but you can’t text pictures or video), manage your calendar, take pictures, listen to FM radio, use a calculator and that’s about it.

On the bright side, this means the phones are cheap, under $100. Additionally, it does offer unlimited talk and text and doesn’t demand any long-term contracts. So in certain situations, it’s a good deal, especially if all your kids do is talk and text. But there are some points of concern about Gabb’s claims and approach.

Does Gabb Have Drawbacks?

First of all, the company FAQ goes so far as to claim that the phone is “unhackable,” which is a boast that rarely survives contact with the open market or the inquisitive minds of children. Their devices are certainly hackable, and it’s just a question of when, how, and who.

Similarly, even if the phone is somehow impenetrable by hackers, that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. If you’re concerned about who your children are communicating with via phone and text, there don’t seem to be any tools to block numbers or recover deleted records. 

Nor does Gabb discuss safety functions such as location tracking, and there don’t seem to be any parental controls built in. If you don’t want your kids texting at school, you’ll have to rely on their own good sense, since you can’t install a parental control app.

Mother and daughter laying together looking at a laptop and phone while smiling.

As your kids get older, they’re going to need more functionality. Teens will likely need a full-featured smartphone, and even preteens are finding that more and more schools are asking kids to use their devices to check their homework or do research. All this begs the question of why you don’t simply buy your child a flip phone, which has the same functions and drawbacks, and then transition them to a smartphone with parental control apps when they’re old enough.

The fundamental problem with this approach is that every household needs to work on the basis of trust and flexibility. While parents have the last word, kids need to understand that they can earn, or maintain, trust by understanding the basis behind the rules and following them. That’s the only way kids can form a healthy relationship with their devices that lasts into adulthood.

Connecting is a positive thing, and should be encouraged. And it’s up to every family how its younger members connect safely with the outside world and stay in touch with family. Parental control apps can help maintain a healthy balance. If you would like to learn how, Screen Time invites you to try us for free.

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Parental Control Apps Now May Help with Responsible Driving Later

by Screen Time Team on 25/09/2019

When your kids are in elementary and middle school, you’re probably not thinking about the day they’ll get behind the wheel. But that day is coming sooner than you might expect, and there’s one important way you can start preparing them now: Teach them to use their phones and tablets responsibly.

An Epidemic Of Distraction

The problem is distracted driving. Distracted driving has three pieces: Visual, where your eyes leave the road; manual, when you remove a hand or hands from the wheel; and mental, when your mind is on something else. Any of the three can be dangerous, and smartphones can potentially combine all three.

And to be fair to the kids, the adults aren’t setting a good example. The CDC estimates that 9 people are killed and 1,000 people injured due to distracted driving every single day of the year, and a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that while only 1% to 2% of us text behind the wheel with any regularity, a shocking one in ten of us takes phone calls while driving. Keep in mind, chatting with a passenger also qualifies as distracted driving, so this is like constantly having a chatty someone in the next seat, waiting to pipe up at the wrong moment.

Fortunately, we can stop making these mistakes, and teach our kids not to make them in the first place.

Young woman speaking on the phone and holding a coffee mug while driving with her knee.

Focusing On The Task

Lead by example, when it comes to distracted driving. Set your phone to “Do Not Disturb” when you drive, and have a family rule that you’ll send a text to anybody in the family who might try to call that you’ll be driving and unavailable. If you do need to make a call, use a hands-free set or a voice assistant, and keep the call short.

Set rules beyond the road as well. Parental control apps can allow you to set rules such as no phone usage at dinner, or only limited uses during certain times of day where kids need to focus, like at school. You can do likewise by setting your phone to silent and leaving it in the other room.

When distraction becomes an issue, don’t just take the phone away, or use your parental control app’s instant pause feature. Sit kids down, explain what the problem is and make sure that they understand why, exactly, you’re concerned. Make it clear that they can earn back the privilege of phone time if they can prove they won’t be distracted, and block problem apps in the meantime.

For teens who are about to learn to drive, make it standard that they put their phones in Do Not Disturb and ensure that messaging apps and other distractions are muted. You may want to have them configure their settings so messaging apps don’t drop notifications on top of maps and other driving apps, so they’re not tempted to pick up the phone.

Distracted driving is the next frontier of safety behind the wheel, but kids don’t have to get lost in it. With responsible phone usage and the right mix of rules and parental control apps, kids can build a healthy and responsible relationship with their phones. To learn more about how parental control apps can help, try Screen Time for free.

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How Parents Can Block Apps on Their Child’s iPhone

by Screen Time Team on 18/09/2019

Every parent knows that with some toys, you either have to restrict how often they’re used, or take them away entirely, sometimes permanently. It’s true of iOS devices as much as video game consoles or other complicated toys. There are less draconian ways to keep kids’ device use under control, and they begin with device-issued parental controls. If you need to restrict or block an app, here’s how you can take care of it.

Educate Your Children

Safety and security depend heavily on what people do on their own, and this is as true of children as adults. Don’t just unilaterally set the rules and make the reasons behind them “because I say so.” Walk your kids through your concerns, the possible risks they face with certain apps or the user base behind them, and your reasons for putting the rules in place.

This won’t ensure that they never break the rules; kids will be kids. But if they understand the rules, and also understand that they can come and ask you if they can have an app and get an honest answer in return, this will reduce their inclination to break the rules just to break them.

Configure the Device

Every iOS device ships with a few tools and settings you can configure. You set a passcode and what aspects of the device you want this to apply to, such as installing or uninstalling apps, whether in-app purchases are allowed, and whether the phone is allowed to open specific apps.

Apple’s made a few decisions that may frustrate parents, however. First, this is a separate app entirely, not features integrated into the operating system. This makes the app vulnerable in a shockingly basic way; kids can just delete it off the phone, and all the settings and controls it implements go with it. Secondly, passcodes aren’t ideal protection methods, since anybody can guess at a passcode.

Mother and daughter paying together.

Use Additional Parental Control Apps

Back up Apple’s tools with a few of your own. Parental control apps offer more options, such as being able to “instant pause” a device, set a schedule for when a device can be used, and completely ban apps. Furthermore, their security is more robust than Apple’s, and they add an extra obstacle to breaking the rules; even if kids guess one passcode, they’ll have to be lucky twice.

Parental control apps are particularly useful because the best ones are flexible with your rules and your family. If you’ve got a preteen and a teenager, they’re going to have to use their devices in different ways, so you can set each up each device to fit their specific needs and your rules. 

Similarly, more and more schools are using “bring your own device” policies for classwork. Many ask kids to use their devices to do homework, so you may find the school year affecting your priorities. As your kids grow, your rules and systems can grow with them, so that you can give them new privileges or shift the rules as they demonstrate increased maturity.

Ensuring your family has a healthy relationship with screens allows you to build a stronger family and sets kids up for success in the future. To learn how the Screen Time parental control app can help, we invite you to try it for free!

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5 Features That Keep Kids Hooked on Apps and What Parents Can Do

by Screen Time Team on 11/09/2019

In the 40s and 50s, psychologist B.F. Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, better known as the “Skinner box.” You’ve likely heard of it: A rat is put in the box, and if it hits a lever, it gets a food pellet. The rat, over time, does nothing but work the lever. And while we’re more intellectually complicated than rats, social media and apps use similar techniques to keep kids and teens hooked. Here are five app features parents should look for, and how to manage them.

1. Push Notifications

Apps are desperate for your attention, and push notifications are a useful way of getting it. Even if you disable the pings and buzzes many notifications set off, they can still light up your screen, drawing your attention. Fortunately, notifications are under your control. For apps that aren’t crucial, you can simply shut them off. For notifications you find useful, you can configure them to only collect on your screen, and to avoid seeing them, put your phone with the screen down.

2. Likes

Facebook is reportedly considering doing away with Likes, or at least the Like count, and that’s probably a good thing. But Likes and similar features also touch off the brain’s reward center: we like attention, because of course we do. We’re all human. The best way to control this is to stay off social media in the first place. 

If that’s not an option, you can still set strict hours for when and how your kids can use it. Also, explain to children the difference between sharing news friends and family may care about and be interested in (which is a good use of social media) and sharing content to get attention.

3. Tagging

Tagging can be useful in the sense that it can inform members of a group event who “Jim” was, although it’s good etiquette to always ask people first before you tag them in a photo. And it can be useful for drawing attention to important posts. However, tagging’s dark side is that it can be abused to draw people into unrelated posts, keeping them on social media longer. The best way to deal with tags is to avoid social media that allows tagging, or to limit your time on sites that do.

Girl looking at her phone.

4. Gamification

This is often a buzzword, but it really just means making apps interactive in simple, fun ways. Apps might ask you to answer questions by swiping left or right, for example. If you know an app uses these techniques, the best thing to do is to simply not download it in the first place. It’s also important to be aware of times when these techniques sneak into non-gaming apps. For example, many dating apps try to “gamify” their content. And if your kids play age-appropriate games online, you can be sure that gamification has been dialed up to keep them playing.

5. Tying Apps To Other Apps

If you’ve ever tried to fully delete Facebook, you know it’s a lot harder than it should be. Often apps will work themselves into our lives by tying into other apps, either to share information or to require you to have an account on one app to use another. This keeps you from cutting off apps completely. But there are ways to lower the temptation to use “addictive” apps. If nothing else, you can remove the icon from the screen so that using them requires accessing the phone’s list of apps.

The first step to keeping your children from being hooked on apps is to understand the techniques app creators employ to keep them engaged. Additionally, education, parental control apps, and common sense make up the best defense against the addictive qualities of apps. To learn more about healthy screen usage and how Screen Time can help your kids achieve it, we invite you to try it for free.

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Parent Concerns Over YouTube Don’t End After FTC Fine

by Screen Time Team on 28/08/2019

In theory, data about children is not supposed to be collected online, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. But according to the FTC, YouTube broke that law with its ad tracking tools. The FTC accuses the site of failing to protect kids’ privacy, bringing a multi-million dollar fine down on the Google empire that owns YouTube. While YouTube is making efforts to solve the problem, it only raises some wider questions about kids and the internet, and who should be responsible for them.

Is YouTube At Fault?

In theory, at least, there’s a YouTube for children, a walled garden called YouTube Kids, and the broader world of YouTube, which is supposed to be restricted to users over the age of 13. That said, this is largely an honor system that isn’t legally enforced; YouTube has no way of knowing who’s using a computer under a Google account, or even the real age of the person using an account.

Add to this that YouTube is a global platform, and that social attitudes for what’s appropriate for children, or for anyone, can vary from country to country. Content may be in English but may not be intended for English-speaking audiences, but rather as English lessons. Add to this that YouTube creators can range from people who sincerely want children to learn to cynical manipulators of the site’s algorithm to rack up the most views, with little concern about the content. Any parent who digs deep enough will come across some genuinely bizarre content nominally aimed at children.

All this means that parents have to take an active role on when, and if, kids watch YouTube.

Happy family sitting on a couch watching tv.

How Parents Can Take Control Of YouTube

Set rules as a family for YouTube. In some cases this might mean simply doing without the site altogether, or only using it to watch content embedded on blogs you trust. Also make clear what content is acceptable, what isn’t, and what kids should do if they come across something inappropriate.

Remove the main YouTube app from devices your children use, and install YouTube Kids instead. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Configure YouTube’s parental controls to limit what content kids see. Again, these controls aren’t as detailed as some parents prefer, but they do offer a layer of protection that keeps kids from accessing content.

Set up parental control apps to keep YouTube, and attempts to use YouTube through your computer’s browser, to a minimum.

Stick to vetted brands and block live-streaming content, especially from individuals. Even the most seemingly child-friendly YouTuber can slip into bizarre or inappropriate behavior after a bad day. Vetted content from providers like Disney or Nickelodeon is far less likely to offer objectionable behavior.

Remember, this will be an ongoing process. As kids grow and become adults, they’ll need to look into topics independently, including topics that may make parents uncomfortable, either for school or for their own edification. So leave room to let the rules change and grow with your kids. But for the stuff that’s inappropriate for anyone, parental control apps can help. To learn how, try it for free!

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