Parenting in the Digital Age: How Parental Controls Have Changed

By Andrea Nelson
February 13, 2024
Father and son talking on couch

Since the early days of the internet, parents have worried what their children are up to online, and companies have responded with parental controls to help keep kids safe. But the way we use the internet has changed dramatically since its inception. This shift has ushered in the need for new approaches to parental controls. Read on to learn how we got here and to explore the best parental controls and monitoring apps to protect kids online.

Types of parental controls 

There are four basic categories of parental controls, ranging from settings on your child’s devices to third-party software. 

Content filters

These controls filter out inappropriate content, thereby limiting what your child can access. In the early days of the internet, the only way to filter content was to install third-party software, such as Net Nanny. Now, the option to filter content is built right into search engines. 

Usage controls 

Usage controls include things like screen time limits and blocking access to certain types of apps, such as social media or gaming. Apple Screen Time is a prime example: this free service allows you to prevent your child from making purchases on the App Store without your permission, schedule quiet time for notifications, and more.

Computer user management 

User management tools are software that set different levels of access, depending on who’s using the device. If you log in to your family laptop, you’ll have unrestricted access, while your child’s profile will include limitations. Most computers now have this feature built-in. 

Monitoring tools

Monitoring tools do exactly what the name suggests: monitor your child’s activity online. What they monitor varies widely depending on the tool. For example, Apple’s Find My monitors your child’s location, while an app like BrightCanary monitors your child’s social media, text messages, and Google and YouTube activity.

The early days of parental controls 

Back in the Wild, Wild West of the World Wide Web, the options for parental controls were limited to web filters. In 1994, Net Nanny introduced a browser that filtered web and chat room content, blocked images, and masked profanity. 

While it was revolutionary at the time, these were still the days where using the internet meant sitting at a desktop computer — typically on a shared family device — with the unmistakable pings of the dial-up modem announcing anytime someone was online. 

Since then, a lot has changed about how we use technology. Kids can access the internet from the palm of their hand with smartphones, smart watches, and tablets. We’re always connected, always online, and always dealing with the compulsion to check social media feeds. These changes have introduced new needs for keeping kids safe online. 

The changing needs of parents and kids

Between WiFi, mobile devices, and social media, using the internet looks very different than it did in the early days of parental controls. And things like the advent of algorithms and the introduction of monetizing data means our lives are intertwined with the internet in ways we couldn’t have imagined back in dial-up days.  

So, what do modern parents really need with parental controls? 

  • Products that seamlessly integrate into their digital lives: This has been a challenge because, while the iPhone has become the dominant device among teens, Apple is notoriously guarded when it comes to allowing third-party apps to monitor activity. This means that very few parental monitoring solutions have been designed that make monitoring truly easy for parents with kids who use Apple devices. 
  • Products that complement what they’re already doing: Apple now offers robust parental control settings, and most social media platforms have their own suites of controls. This leaves less need for all-in-one apps like Bark and Qustodio, which can feel clunky and redundant when parents can now customize these settings (for free) directly on their phone. Other apps, such as BrightCanary, fill in the gaps by monitoring what other tools don’t, such as social media feeds.
  • The ability to monitor messages: Gone are the days where parents knew who their kids were chatting with because they could overhear them on the phone or sneak a peek as they sent instant messages on the family computer. Nowadays, kids primarily communicate over text messages and direct messages, not only on computers, but on phones, tablets, and smartwatches — often out of sight of parents. This shifting landscape has introduced new avenues for kids to be exposed to harmful content and requires new ways for parents to supervise their children.  

Modern solutions for parenting in the digital age

BrightCanary allows parents to keep tabs on their kid’s online life wherever and whenever, all from their own phone. They offer the most comprehensive coverage for kids on Apple devices and, unlike other apps, they actually allow parents to see what their kids are viewing online and view their text message conversations. It’s a modern solution for the needs of modern families. 

In short 

What families need from parental controls has shifted in recent years, but many companies have failed to keep up with these changes. BrightCanary offers modern parental control solutions that work for modern families. 

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