Before age 1 (ONE!), nearly half of kids play games or watch videos on a mobile device. That's according to one recent study of families with young children published in the journal Pediatrics. By the time they're teens, nearly three-quarters have their own smartphone or access to one.
As just about every parent knows, getting kids online is the easy part. Protecting them is much harder — in terms of technology and ethics.
Bryhem Clax has a 9-year-old stepson who watches a lot of YouTube. "All you're going to see is Minecraft, nothing but Minecraft" on his profile, Clax says.
The kid loves games. But even when his YouTube channel is all youth and innocence, the advertisements are not. Suggestive ads will pop up, of a man smoking or a woman dancing provocatively. Clax says it can get more racy than the stuff you see in TV commercials. And even if it's just for five or 10 seconds, "it's an impressionable time for a child," he says.
Cheryl West has had that awkward moment when she's just trying to help her kid with homework, and Google search goes rated-R. "We were punching something in for like a health report and there [were] naked men on there," West recalls. "She's in middle school!"
West tried to protect her daughter by going to BestBuy and getting software to lock the computer and limit the websites that'll load. But that didn't work either, because "she figured it out," West says.
Her ninth-grade daughter figured out the whole system, and how to hack it. Like many kids, she knows computers better than her parents do.
"I didn't realize it for a couple of weeks," West says. "They're unbelievable!"
There is so much a parent cannot control online. In part, it's because kids have their own free will. And in part it's because the technology just isn't that evolved. While many sophisticated products exist to help employers monitor their workers, far fewer help parents manage kids.
"If you look at the home network, it really hasn't changed in 10 years," says Paul Judge, co-founder of Luma, a new security startup for families. "You have that same kind of blue and black router that you purchased 10 years ago. Maybe you bought a new one. But [it] hasn't changed much, it hasn't gotten smarter."
Luma revamps the home Wi-Fi system. Using their smartphones, parents can see every wireless device attempting to use the network, block access and set levels of permission. Little Timmy just gets G-rated websites; Tina gets sites rated PG.
And if there's a site that seems questionable, but Timmy or Tina have a reason to go there, they can press a button on the Web app and it will send a request to the parent. "So even if the parent's off at work, you can allow it or deny it, from your phone, sitting at your desk at the office," Judge says.
Luma lets you limit access by time of day: During homework time, just allow educational websites. During dinnertime, when there's dead silence at the table, "you can press a button and it will pause the Internet. The kids have to look up and actually engage with their parents."
(Assuming parents aren't too busy on their phones!)
Luma also lets you watch your kids and review every site they've visited. And that surveillance power is becoming common. Microsoft built Windows 10 to give parents a weekly browsing report. Apps like PhoneSheriff and TeenSafe let you remotely read your child's call logs and text messages (even deleted texts).
Parents feel conflicted about spying.
"Once you get to high school, I kind of feel like you got your bumps and bruises," says stepdad Bryhem Clax. "As long as you're doing what you're supposed to do, you're not getting in no trouble and I don't see no drastic change in your behavior, then I wouldn't really so much as worry about what you're watching."
As he's talking, his partner Joy Wilson is shaking her head. She completely disagrees with him. "I don't trust teens. I was one once," she says and laughs.
Wilson says she'd like to spy on her kids until they're 18. Another mom, Frieda Taylor, says spying is her right. "It is good. It should be done," she says.
Asked until what age, she says without pause, "Until they get married."
Clearly, there is lots of room for debate.