An age-based guide to parental controls and internet safety for kids
Learn how to change up parental control settings as your child ages so they can learn how to make better decisions as they become young adults.
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If you grew up in the ’80s, you were likely more focused on the games on your breakfast cereal box than the picture of the missing kid on the milk carton next to you. Meanwhile your parents, teachers and caregivers tried to figure out how to talk about “stranger danger” without compromising your sense of safety in the world.
If you’re a parent today, you’re having the same kind of conversations—except there are now also digital stranger dangers to talk about. Fortunately, there are new tools to help you along. And according to the experts, those controls and conversations need to change with each stage of your child’s digital development.
“We need to install that healthy fear, as well as navigate it,” says digital parenting expert Sarah Werle-Kimmel.
So what’s under your control? When it comes to parental control settings, there are apps and toggles you can use, but ultimately you have the most control over the conversation. Which is why we asked the experts for tips on how they do it in their own families.
What can parents control?
Overall, you control the tech that comes into the house and the conversation about how to use it. Ideally, it starts with you learning how to use the device yourself, then deciding if it’s right for your kid, says author, international safety expert and digital parenting coach Elizabeth Milovidov.
“Take time to read through the terms and conditions; read through what’s in the safety center,” Milovidov says. It’s not always obvious where that information is, she adds. So expect to take some time, dig in and understand the terms and conditions. Eventually, parents will discover for themselves if it’s something they want for their kids.
That also goes a long way in building a tech-positive relationship with your kids, says parent coach Beatrice Moise, who also specializes in helping parents with neurodivergent kids.
“A lot of decisions parents make aren’t based on experience,” Moise says. When her kids wanted to play Minecraft, she played it herself for a month first. In that time, she learned what the game was all about, and she was impressed.
“They’re building things, they’re being creative,” Moise says, so the game got the green light. But if you play it through and find something you’re not ok with, at least the kids know you tried to give permission but could not.
“Then you have a real reason, not just ‘I don’t like it,’” Moise says. In that instance, you risk dismissing your child’s point of view, and they’ll possibly learn how to keep things hidden from you.
How to set parental controls
Parental control settings can be applied in layers, says Werle-Kimmel, and she applies the device’s built-in controls first, then she monitors the messages and, finally, filters the content.
Manage the device: Look for the device’s built-in parental control settings, generally found in the settings menu. For iOS devices, look for the gear icon, then tap Screen Time. Android’s parental controls are found in Google’s Family Link app.
Monitor the messages: You can outsource third-party apps and install services such as Smart Family to monitor and manage an approved list of contacts in your child’s phone.
Filter the content: Finally, apply content restriction filters like Smart Family on internet searches and social media apps to filter out inappropriate content.
Those are the more universal parental controls you can apply to the devices in your child’s life. But as your child ages, the controls should change to match their stage in development as well as to prepare older teens to make good decisions online for themselves.
Ages 3–5: Parental controls for a smart speaker or a smartwatch
For some families, a smartwatch is a child’s first device. And during the pandemic, more smart speakers were a child’s first device. This is an ideal age to start letting kids get used to asking for your permission to use a device when an adult is present. For example, if your kid wants the device, they need to ask you for it first and play with it when you’re in the room, otherwise it’s off limits.
The controls: With a smart speaker, you control where you put the device, such as in the family’s main living areas, says Moise. Smart speakers don’t belong in a child’s bedroom or playroom, where adults can’t monitor its use.
Also consider changing up the wake word for smart devices, says Milovidov. Most smart speakers have a short list of names you can choose from, and if you change it up, it helps your child understand that access is limited and protected by you.
Most kid’s smartwatches, such as GizmoWatch, have built-in parental controls that are designed to keep kids safe. Gizmo has an app that parents install on their phones so only the approved list of contacts can communicate with kids.
The conversation: This is the age when kids start learning what’s not ok to say in public. For example, it’s not appropriate to say “poop” at the dinner table. The same is true for learning what’s appropriate when using technology.
Any time you bring a Wi-Fi–powered device into the house, you should assume that nothing is private, Milovidov says. “They should assume that everybody can see them, talk to them or hear them,” she adds. “It’s a piece of technology that is open to the world.”
It’s also important to set good boundaries with a smartwatch, Moise says. It’s a monitoring or tracking device. “It’s good on playdates when another parent is present,” she says. You’re intentionally teaching children that this isn’t something they have with them all the time.
“Little kids are really rule followers,” Moise says. “If you give them the thing with no rules, then it seems like a punishment or consequence when it’s taken away.”
Ages 5–8: Tablets and parental controls for the internet
According to Pew Research Center, 81% of kids this age receive their first tablet for streaming video and internet access. Which means now is the time to start learning about parental controls to monitor your kid’s activity online.
Parental controls: Tablets have parental control settings on the device. You can set screen time limits for Wi-Fi access, for example, such as 3–3:30 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can also control whether they make in-app purchases.
“Outsource the controls, but know the device,” says Moise. Take a day and learn the device yourself, inside and out. “I love the screen time settings, and I use restrictive mode so it takes away explicit content, and once it’s done it’s done.”
When it comes to monitoring kids’ activity online, the experts recommend additional tools such as Smart Family.
The conversation: “My kids have two hours to spend on their tablets. In restrictive mode, it simply shuts off,” Moise says. “If they want more time, they have to come back to me.” That’s ideal because kids establish the habit early that they need to come to you first when they want to use technology, Moise says.
Then, sit with your kid and talk through the parental controls together, Milovidov says. Point out the microphones on these devices and remind them the device is listening.
This is also when the digital stranger danger conversation starts. They should only interact with people online that they know from school. If a stranger reaches out, they should come to you first. Now is also the time to start talking about not sharing any personal identifiable information online, just like you wouldn’t give personal information to people you don’t know in public.
Ages 9–11: Gaming and smartphone parental controls
Sixty-seven percent get their first smartphone or gaming console around this age, according to the same study. At this age, parents can start to lean heavily into monitoring their kid’s online activity and messages because these devices are open to others via direct messages on social media, or while playing with other players in online gaming.
Parental controls: “I do random phone checks,” Moise says, where they hand over the phone and she checks it out. It sets the precedent early on that she is going to be looking in from time to time, and it becomes a regular practice.
With apps such as Smart Family, you can limit calls and texts and set content filters, too. It’s also a good idea to set a time for Wi-Fi to shut off at bedtime to help kids unplug.
Some message monitoring apps will even flag specific risky words or pictures, and send you snippets of the conversation, Werle-Kimmel says.
“For example, my son was flagged for searching for something sexual, and it turned out he was looking for ‘bouncy balls.’” Werle-Kimmel laughs. “But I like these benign conversations because it makes the harder conversations easier, and they know I’m paying attention.”
With gaming, check the parental controls on games such as Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft to make sure the chats are dismantled so your kids can’t be contacted by people they don’t know.
The conversation: Plan to talk together about which parental controls have been enabled, and why. Your kids might push back and say you’re being too nosey and that it’s a violation of their privacy. But remind them that when a conversation is happening online, nothing is private, not even for adults, Werle-Kimmel says. “Anything I do online is public. They can have all the privacy they want with a pen and paper.”
Ages 13 and up: Social media parental controls
More than half of adults say they favor government regulation of social media, according to a recent Morning Consult report. State attorneys are also asking app makers such as TikTok and Snap to step up their in-app parental controls. And most social media apps require that kids be at least 13 to use them. But the goal is to have strong parental controls and content filters at the beginning that then ease up as your kids become older teens.
Parental controls: A first step for tweens is to connect their social accounts to yours so you can easily access the interactions and messages. They learn that nothing online is private—you’re watching. Explain why: Not everything online is real, and you, as the adult, have more experience with noticing when something is off. That’s why you’re checking. Milovidov will often show her kids the phishy tricks that she gets as an adult to prove the point.
“I’ll show them when someone is trying to trick me on my phone,” she says, and explains further … “There are adults who fall into these traps. I don’t want you to be in a situation where people are trying to trick you.”
You can also look for the parental control settings within the apps, which limit your child’s interaction to only those contacts they know. Adding content filters in the early teens are essential at this stage of development.
The conversation: Walk through the restriction settings together and remind kids that you can do everything in your control, but accidents can still happen. Advertisements can still be intrusive, and they can slide into your private messages in apps in a variety of ways.
As you build trust together, you can also start talking about how you’ll start removing these restrictions as kids get closer to 18, because ultimately, they’ll need to learn how to navigate tech on their own.
“I like to let go of control as they’re turning to 16 or 17,” Werle-Kimmel says. “I’m pulling back, because at 18, they’re going to be able to do whatever they want.”
Will digital parenting ever get easier? Probably not. The good news is that once they reach the age of 18, they’re mostly on their own.
“My job is to help them have the good habits,” Werle-Kimmel says. “So when they’re 18, they’ll still have those choices.”