The trials and tribulations of being a digital parent

Kid with smartphone

My son turns 10 this month. For most kids in England, that would mean he’s a year away from getting his first smartphone. However, we live in Northumberland, where there’s a First, Middle, and High school system. As a result, kids start walking to school by themselves in Year 5, when they’re just nine years old.

He made do from September until the end of 2016 with a Nokia feature phone. However, for lots of reasons (not least the ‘two ticks’ showing that a message has been read in instant messaging apps like Telegram) we wanted to upgrade him to a smartphone as soon as he was ready.

Orginally, he was to have my wife’s old iPhone 5c. That was one of several old phones we had around the place, including an iPhone 4, a couple of Firefox OS phones, and an antidiluvean Android. I wasn’t averse to spending money on getting the right device but, to my mind, it was the operating system that was important.

For example, Firefox OS is great, even if the operating system is no longer updated by Mozilla. I’ve got a friend whose 11 year-old son uses one of these devices. However, my friend’s son is obviously a bit more trustworthy than mine, as the lack of parental controls in Firefox OS means that he would probably access stuff via the web browser that I wouldn’t want him to see at such a young age.

I considered Ubuntu Touch, but it’s almost impossible to buy a handset running that operating system. There are ways to flash Android devices to use it but, even then, from what I read, it’s a sub-optimal experience and with ports maintained by individual developers. People move on, we’d be left hanging.

Windows Phone is not only dying, but it’s Microsoft, which I wouldn’t go near with a bargepole. That, then, leaves Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. I wanted him to have a phone that felt like his rather than just a generic thing that’s controlled by Cupertino, so I decided that even though I have misgivings about setting him up with a Google account so young, we’d go with Android. At least his Google account uses his pre-existing personal email address, rather than one @gmail.com!

There’s a couple of great things about Android. First, you have access to change things at the operating system level – something that Apple would never let you do. Second, although Google add all sorts of proprietary things on top (including the battery-draining Google Play Services), the core of Android, AOSP, is free and Open Source.

For reasons too arcane to go into here, I decided to upgrade (‘sidegrade’?) my Sony Xperia Z3 Compact to a Oneplus One. So, I was now in the situation where I had a spare Sony Z3C, in all of its waterproof glory, with an extremely tough case that I’d chosen 18 months ago. Instead of selling it, I consulted with my wife and we decided that, if we could configure it in a way with which we were both happy, our son could have it.

To cut a long story short, we’ve used a combination of two apps to configure his Android device. After testing, we felt parental control apps like Dinnertime Plus were too invasive. Instead, the first app we’ve opted for is McAfee Safe Family which, after reading many glowing reviews from happy parents, and trialling its features, seems to do 90% of what we want. In particular, I’m delighted with the way it allows him to find out about things like gambling and dating sites, while preventing him from accessing the services themselves. I can also view his browsing history, restrict use of his device to certain hours, and even choose to get notifications when he enters/leaves certain geographic areas.

The second app is Norton App Lock, which does one thing extremely well: requiring the entry of a secret security pattern to access any apps you choose to restrict. That means that our son can’t access Settings, the Google Play Store, Hangouts, or Google+. I’ve also deactivated YouTube, and other Google apps like Play Music.

Parenting is hard, especially with your eldest child. You’re making it up as you go along, especially in areas that no one has a lot of expertise. On the one hand, I don’t like censorship and spying – which is why we’re switching from BT to A&A for our broadband next week. But, on the other hand, there’s an innocence to childhood that needs to be protected, especially when we’re putting such powerful devices into such small hands. My son needs to know we’re looking out for him.

Our children return to school tomorrow, so it will be the first test of the above configuration. Fingers crossed, and we’ll see how he gets on…

Image CC0 Gaelle Marcel