Should 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Want to dig into this more? I co-authored a book which delves more into this topic, which many people find useful. You can buy A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media on Amazon or on our company website, The Youth Cartel.