Over the last couple months
we have emphatically made this point: the internet is not safe. It’s not that it’s evil, any more than steak knives and pickup trucks are evil; it’s that it’s not safe (just like steak knives and pickup trucks). And because it’s not safe you MUST take action to protect yourself and your children online. In order to do this we have emphasized two main points: #1 Strengthen identity in the family, and #2 Use devices/software designed to protect you online.
Last month we focused on #1 as we emphasized the need to anchor identity in the family. We reviewed these action steps:
- Put your phone down and talk as a family.
- Turn off the TV and play games as a family.
- Eat supper as a family.
- Read books and talk about them as a family.
- Worship as a family.
- Discuss the sermon as a family.
- Pray as a family.
And we added these:
- Establish screen-free zones in your house.
- Establish screen-free times in your family life.
- Set device curfews when all screens must be turned off and turned in.
- Decide upon family guidelines for tech usage.
- Teach tech safety.
We MUST do these things. Remember, as we heard from Dr. Leonard Sax, author of The Collapse of Parenting,
Part of the task of the parent is, and always has been, educating desire: teaching your child to desire and enjoy things that are higher and better than cotton candy. Video games, Instagram, and text messages are the cotton candy of American popular culture today (152).
Grounding identity in the family and not in the ever-expanding internet world (now being termed “the metaverse,” an alternative virtual world increasingly disconnected from the real world and increasingly influential over the hearts and minds of people) is essential not only for our safety, but for our moral foundation (rightly ordered desires) and our connection to reality (to God’s world as it really is).
This month we turn to #2: devices and software designed to protect you online. If we care about rightly ordered desires (esteeming what is good, right, true, and beautiful), what we and our children view online should matter to us. Images and the possibilities they suggest are very powerful and we would be exceedingly foolish to believe we and our children are invincible before them.
We wouldn’t drop our children off outside an adult bookstore, a casino, or drug house and expect them to be un-curious or un-tempted, and yet all of these images, ideas, and opportunities are easily accessible online. We need to protect ourselves and our family online. The following devices and software are specifically designed to enable you to decide what content can be displayed on your or your children’s screens.
Research shows that children are being exposed to porn with the average age of first exposure hovering somewhere between 9 to 11! Canopy (www.canopy.us
) detects and blocks pornographic material online and on your child’s phone camera by using advanced computing technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning. It also offers Sexting Alerts that help detect and prevent sexting (Yes, this is happening. Studies vary, but they suggest somewhere in the range of 15% of teens have sent sexts and 27% have received them. And the numbers for adults were, sadly, much higher.) Canopy also includes Removal Prevention that keeps kids from disabling it.
Canopy provides an app management tool that tells you about every app on your child’s device even as it allows you to choose which ones he or she can use. Much like the app Life 360 (highly recommended!), Canopy provides location awareness so that you can know where your child is and when.
Canopy works with Android devices, iPhones and iPads, Apple computers, and Windows operating systems. Canopy does not, however, filter on-demand streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Go, and so forth. Parents permitting these need to utilize the parental controls on them. If you need help setting these controls, Canopy provides detailed instructions. Monthly subscription plans start at $8 (covering three devices) and go up to $16 (covering up to ten).
“In technical terms, [Firewalla] is a Firewall, IPS (intrusion prevention system), IDS (intrusion detection system), Adblocker, and VPN all merged into one.” That’s its website’s fancy speak for, “It’s a tiny firewall that plugs into your router that allows you to protect yourself and your family online.”
More specifically, Firewalla allows you to see what your children are doing online (gaming, surfing, or homework), to block ads and malicious and inappropriate content. Further, it allows you to block specific activities on specific devices (i.e. game blocking for set times, like when children are supposed to be doing homework!). Firewalla also alerts and protects you from cyber threats like a hacked baby camera, smart speaker, or phone. For those uncomfortable sharing private information on public Wifi, Firewalla provides a built-in VPN server (A virtual private network (VPN) that ensures online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection).
Firewalla has no monthly fees, but offers a suite of device options with varying levels of speed and function depending on need. I suspect over 90% of us would be happy with the $120 basic unit.
Parents often have a love/hate relationship with children and their smartphones, loving the ability to communicate with their children when they’re away from home and to track their whereabouts through apps like Life 360, but hating the bad stuff (addictive gaming, pornographic content, social media drama and skewed presentation of reality, and general time wasting). Fortunately, two companies have taken steps to preserve the good and eliminate the bad: Gabb and Pinwheel.
Both manufacture smartphones and both agree that kids need to be protected online. So both devices have no social media, no streaming, no web browser, no games, and no app store. Kids may balk, but every parent’s heart should swell with hope. As we emphasized above, it’s not that these are evil, but they are most certainly not safe. And giving kids unfettered and ungoverned access to unfiltered content and unknown “friends” is the epitome of unsafe.
And with the mounting evidence of social media’s deleterious (negative) effects on people (especially young people!) (i.e. Facebook and Instagram’s negative impact on body image and mental health and Tik Tok’s never ending stream of often suggestive videos and recommendations), parents should be especially pleased that both smartphones block social media. Both phones operate under the premises that phones are for communicating with parents and personally known contacts and that parents, rather than the internet, should be the primary influencer in children’s lives. What conscientious parent would object?
Gabb and Pinwheel return control to parents and protect kids from getting sucked into a world apart from and ungoverned by parents, which is one of the great dangers of smartphones.
Gabb comes loaded with 14 essential apps (music, phone, messaging, camera, calendar, calculator, etc.) while Pinwheel allows parents, through its caregiver portal, to choose the apps to which they want their children to have access. This provides a graduated approach to app access, but social media apps cannot be added to the phone.
Both phones allow parents to approve contacts for texting and calling. So if a contact isn’t approved, the contact can’t text the child and the child can’t text the non-approved contact. Pinwheel also allows parents to see the phone’s call history and entire text conversations (not just who is texting whom).
Pinwheel, like Life 360 and Canopy, provides location data. Parents can decide whether picture texting is allowed and group texting is allowed if everyone in the group has been approved by the parents (which is quickly and easily accomplished through the caregiver portal). Pinwheel also allows parents to establish modes in which they set app access to certain days and times (i.e. prohibiting certain apps during school or homework hours).
Gabb requires users to establish a monthly cellular contract through them ($20 per month), while Pinwheel provides the phone through a one-time purchase and allows users to add it to their existing cell plan. They offer a graduated monthly fee for their caregiver portal service that gets smaller with additional lines added (the first line is $15 per month). Parents may question the expense, but they need to remember that they’re paying for a service that isn’t selling their data, or their kids’ attention, or violating their privacy. “Free” services are never really free; they use us as their product. Paying for services frees us from being used.
The internet, like so much technology in our lives, allows us to do great and wonderful things, but like much of the technology we use every day, it’s not safe. We must take steps to protect ourselves and our children online. The software and devices shared in this article provide a variety of ways to help. If you know of or use other devices/software or if you have other safety practices, I’d love to hear from you! Please share. And if you want to visit about things like identity theft protection and password management software (areas we didn’t even touch in this article!), come visit with me. Together we can help keep one another and our children safe online. – Pastor Conner
 I again commend James Smith’s You Are What You Love for its excellent treatment of intentionally habiting our way to rightly ordered desires.