Should I filter the internet for my teenager?

internet_filter_by_sally06Should I filter the internet for my teenager?

My default answer to this question is “No.” I think it’s better to set-up healthy internet habits which you can all agree on and abide by. (Meaning parents follow the same rules as teenagers.)

These habits should include open conversations about internet use, monitoring the stuff they are doing, and building a clear pathway to earning your trust towards unmonitored use.

Why? Because even the most pious 5th grader can easily disable any internet filter. If you are depending on that to “protect your child” than you’ll be sorely disappointed.

With that said, when I talk to parents at seminars I usually soften my answer to…. Maybe.

Why? For one… Because before we get to a solution, we need to think of the actual problem and the problem you are trying to anticipate. And that path might actually lead you to some level of filtering. For two… I don’t know who is in the room. If I stand up and say filters are a waste of money I’m going to offend some people in the room because they’ve probably invested in something. The easiest way for me to turn off learning is to tell someone they’ve wasted money. When you buy something you have a tendency to think it works even if it clearly doesn’t. (Lots of study on this phenomenon.) And, if I’m speaking to a church audience my working assumption is that someone at the church is either recommending a filter or actually selling filters to people in the church. And I’m not going to mess with that!

Why don’t filters work?

  1. Software filters. They are easy to disable, navigate around, and otherwise don’t work. Talk to any school IT administrator and they’ll laugh about filters. On the one hand, districts spend lots of money on filters, so administrators LOVE them because they are part of what justifies their salary. On the other hand, students easily turn them off, go around them, and create headaches for IT administrators. Filtering software just can’t keep up with blocking the right sites so they cause more headaches than they are worth. With a quick Google search a student can learn how to get around any filter. For the most part they aren’t learning to do that because they want to look at bad sites, they are doing it because filters block things they need to do their assignments. 
  2. Hardware filters. One way administrators (and parents willing to spend extra money) try to block sites is at the switch. A switch is a device that you attach to your router that basically tells your network what to do with each connection. (User) You can then login to the switch and control all sorts of things. You could then have a network your kids login to and a different one that you login to, controlling who can access what that way. With this method you could theoretically block access to specific sites or IP addresses. That’s much more effective but still not fixing anything. It’s essentially what China does to block things like YouTube and Google from the population. So what’s a kid going to do? Pretty much what business people in China do… connect to whatever they want through a free VPN. Or, like I heard from a parent at a seminar recently, they’ll just access the internet from your neighbors wifi instead of yours. Clever. It only takes a minute to crack a weak wifi password, then it’s all filterless internet forever. Both of those sound too far fetched for you? Gosh, they’re both super easy to do in under 5 minutes. And don’t you remember the lengths you were willing to go through to do whatever you wanted as a teenager? I’m not the only one who crawled out some windows, right? 

Well crap. So what do we do?

  1. Stop trying to be so sneaky. I’m always intrigued by parents who try to do stuff behind their teenagers back. (Like using their phone to track their whereabouts via GPS. Yeah, that’s not weird.) Instead of relying on a filter– which is annoying because it often stops them from doing legitimate things online and reminds them constantly that you don’t trust them, you should just have a conversation about developing healthy habits. “Wait… you mean I’m supposed to talk to my teenager?” Um. Yeah. About that. 
  2. Allow them to earn freedom. We have an 11 & 9 year old. We absolutely keep an eye on what they are up to. When they get a phone they’ll know that it comes with strings attached… just like their tablets have strings attached now. Mom and dad will have the right to look through their texts, look at the history on all of their devices, and that we’ll have conversations about their usage. But we’re also doing that with the plan to not do that forever. Just like they earn freedom with other areas, we want them to earn our trust with their internet/mobile usage.
  3. Practice healthy principles. Rather than simply filtering… why not set-up healthy boundaries that everyone in the house, parents included, maintain? That way they aren’t just locked into the rules of the house but they truly understand why you have boundaries and why you do things in a certain way.
  4. Let’s talk about accountability. Almost all of these conversations generally come down to two topics. Bullying and porn. There will come a time in every teenagers life, male or female, when they encounter… and maybe willfully seek out porn. It. is. going. to. happen. Mom and dad– get over it. When you discover it, approach the topic with grace, love, forgiveness… and accountability. If you are talking about something beyond a casual curiosity I’d recommend setting up X3watch to create an accountability relationship with your teenager. (You’ll be exchanging browsing histories. Yup.) I’m not brushing over bullying. But the simple reality is that if you aren’t talking to your teenager about their internet usage you’ll never be close enough to what’s going on to even notice if they are being bullied.
  5. Keep the goal in mind. The biggest problem with the “filter it, forget it” mindset is that it simply isn’t leading your teenager to a healthy place. I find it helps to imagine your teenager in a college dorm. Have you equipped them to deal with the long stretches of separation from family? For being far from home? For living a filterless existence? Let’s start with that in mind and start working backwards into the teenage years.


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6 responses to “Should I filter the internet for my teenager?”

  1. Zevi Sternlicht Avatar
    Zevi Sternlicht

    Good write up, you have hit home with your last few points! There is not enough focus nowadays on equipping ourselves and our children with ability to not abuse the internet. A filter is only as good as when the person is being filtered, but as you put it away on holiday then the problem is right back. The trick is to get them used to not surfing wrongly!

  2. Hannah Avatar

    I’ve had some conversations with others lately about the porn thing- you’re right, it’s going to happen. And it has nothing to do with good kids vs. rebellious kids. What we’ve been wondering about is if we have a zero tolerance policy- do we give up the chance to talk about these things with our kids, like, really talk? Talk about the industry, talk about the degrees of gradation on ethics- violence vs. more innocent things, trafficking vs. choice, etc. I know that’s hard for a lot of Christians to consider- it’s easier to just shut it all down, but I wonder if you shut it all down, if you lose the guidance role. I guess a parallel argument to the problems with abstinence only education (If they do it anyway- they won’t know how to be safe.) Anyway, just things my circle has been considering that I wanted to share.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      I agree. The thing that most people don’t think about with the “zero tolerance” thing is that you’re not stopping it, just driving it further and further in the far corners of life. So when/if it doesn’t come out you’re talking about something very traumatic.

  3. Jason Tucker Avatar

    I use OpenDNS with some blocking setup. I set OpenDNS as the DNS server for my router at home. My kids have smart phones and tablets so they end up going the ought OpenDNS. It’s a poor mans filter but it also helps with misspelled websites leading sites they weren’t expecting. 17 year old boy and 8 year old girl I wanna protect a bit. She only uses KidZui app on the computer to play around In a walled garden.

  4. Adam Lehman Avatar

    Good stuff, I’ve leapfrogged every filtering system thrown my way. Same with my 17-year-old brother.

    One of the scary things parents DO NOT want to talk about is their kids watching porn at a buddies house or on a friends phone. Happens. A lot.

    …now try filtering that one….

  5. Mr Dooks Avatar
    Mr Dooks

    If i ever have children , i will not use parental controls or filtering. I will only look at there stuff ift
    there doing something bad. Then maybe set up a device to log (but not filter) usage , but only if the SHTF.

    Free proxies and VPN’s can go around run-of the mill servers and then there
    in Warez and Booby central. Seriously , so don’t be hardcore about it. They will
    end up learning how to bypass filtering and restrictions. They may steal neighbors wifi
    or use cell phones to get uncensored access.

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