How Your Kids Are Outsmarting All Your Parental Controls

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This fascinating article in The Wall Street Journal details an arms-race taking place in America’s households. Concerned parents are using internet blocking and filtering techniques on their tech devices, while their children are diligently figuring out how to defeat them. Spoiler alert: The kids are winning.

Consider 43-year-old Colorado real estate broker Lance Walker and his 11-year-old daughter Peyton. When Lance discovered Peyton was receiving messages from adult men on TikTok, he went to Apple’s parental-control settings and locked things down. But Peyton logged in with a new Apple ID to use TikTok, and password-locked her father out of it.

“It was a nightmare,” Walker told the Journal. He is reportedly still trying to figure out how to control his daughter’s TikTok habit.

It’s a particularly difficult problem because kids often know technology better than their parents, and almost always have more free time to figure out workarounds than their parents do to set up restrictions.

It’s hard to get too specific about how to restrict content, because so much of it has to do with the kind of content you want to block from which apps or services, but here are some tips to get you started.

Using Apple’s iOS parental controls

Every major operating system offers a way to block users from objectionable content, but since most kids (87 percent of teens, according to a recent survey) use iPhones or iPads, most parents should familiarize themselves with iOS’s Screen Time tool. It allows you to filter out adult content, prevent purchases, and it set time limits, for use of the phone, or for specific kinds of apps (i.e., no games after 8 p.m.).

For most parents, this likely provides all the protection they need. But if your child is determined to access and override the controls, it’s not all that difficult.

How kids can get around parental controls on iPhone and iPads

According protectyoungeyes.com, your kid could override parental controls if they use their own Apple ID and reset their device to factory default (savvy kids will set up backups of apps and data on iCloud first). If you use parental controls to set time limits, kids can delete then reinstall the app that’s timed out, or change the time zone on the device itself to give themselves some extra hours. (You can lock down changing time zones, but would you really think of that?)

The master solution for bypassing iOS’s parental controls, though, is to get access to the PIN you use to lock down the device. They might look over your shoulder as you type it in or even note the smudge marks on the screen. Theoretically, since the passcode is only four digits, kids could use a brute-force cracking program on a separate PC or Mac to figure out the password on an iTunes backup file. Do you see what parents are up against?

Setting up parental control at the router level

If your child is finding their way around the operating-system-based block you put on their devices, you might want to consider a router with robust security to lock down the whole network. Most routers come with at least some parental controls—but some make it a selling point, offering the ability to filter content generally, whitelist or blacklist specific websites, control and monitor devices on the network, set time limits, and more. There are even subscription-based hardware solutions like Circle, that promises parental controls that “let you manage screen time and monitor not just some, but ALL websites and apps.” Surely, this is enough to control your kid’s screen time? Not if they’re clever.

How kids can get around router-based security

Here is a partial list of ways someone could potentially defeat router-level security. Not all of these tips (taken from techdetox.com) would work with every security set-up, but this is a taste of possible techniques. And I’m sure there are other workarounds out there, too:

  • Figure out your password—this is the easiest and most effective solution.
  • Google your router’s default password and use it. (You did remember to change the default password on your router, right?)
  • Set up a VPN: A virtual private network set up on your child’s phone could circumvent the security features on some routers.
  • Unplug a parental control router.
  • Access through a proxy site: If there’s a specific site your kid wants to get on, they could enter it through a proxy. Well-known proxy sites are probably blocked already by parental software, but there are always new ones, and I’ll bet your kid hears about them before you or your filtering software does.
  • Bypass the router by using a phone’s hotspot feature.
  • Use your neighbor’s wifi.

You could just take away their phone

In another example from The Wall Street Journal, Chad Bullock, a sales manager at a tech company, explained his three-level approach to keeping control of his-14 year-old son Parker’s excessive gaming. Mr. Bullock says he runs Google Family Link, Bark, and Circle, a hardware-and-subscription-based filter. Parker got around all of it by spoofing his mom’s phone’s MAC address.

Ultimately, there’s no software that can take the place of raising a child who respects the limits you set. The technical challenge seems likely to have the opposite of a deterrent effect. For parents, navigating the byzantine world of parental controls is likely a drudgerous nightmare, but for a smart kid with a hacker personality, figuring out how to get around internet restrictions is fun, like hacking the cable box for free movie channels was fun for me when I was a kid.

If your child is old enough to out-hack parental controls, they’re old enough to understand why they should respect the limits your set. So this is not really a technology problem; it’s a larger issue about boundaries and rule-following that no filtering software is going to solve. Maybe just take away their phone.