The world we live in
I've got two 17-year-old kids who have just finished their high school leaving exams. Due to the era in which they've grown up (and with me as a father) they have been surrounded by technology their entire lives; they probably don't remember a time without wireless-always-on internet and instant communication.
When they were younger their own technology was limited, all they really had access to was a communal desktop PC, family TV, handheld gaming and early consoles. It was at this stage that their mother and I introduced the idea of "screen time" in an effort to limit their immersion. They were young and setting those boundaries was easy, they really had no idea of the ocean of information out there.
All that changed when they entered high school, started the school's laptop program and had their own portal to the internet. This was managed by the school, for the most part. I did block a couple of domains in the router (some online gaming) but the general policy was that they just needed to be open about what they were doing on them.
Early on keeping them focused was easy, they couldn't install any software without admin rights and they didn't need their laptops too much for homework. As they grew so did their school workloads and technological distractions: social media, streaming, chat, games, smart phones… All this led to an increasing need to set boundaries.
When they reached year 11 their workload jumped up again as they prepared for their WACE (leaving) exams competing with the increased distractions of being a teenager in a connected world. We had a few problems with staying up to all hours on Facebook and Tumblr, also with the temptation to just check one other thing when they were looking something up or working on assignments.
We went through a few iterations to help them manage the distractions of the internet, social media and gaming but what we ended up with were four (relatively) simple things:
- Do homework and study at desks out in an open area, this meant we could be generally aware of when they were studying. It had a side effect of improving my daughter's ergonomics; no more working and studying in bed.
- My son committed to stop gaming until after exams.
- Cheap prepaid mobile plans: there was only a very limited amount of SMS, data and phone calls they could make, and they had to maintain enough credit to call us if they needed to.
- Installing Gargoyle Router Management Utility (http://www.gargoyle-router.com/) on my router, and setting some rules and monitoring in place.
Gargoyle is an open source replacement firmware for routers, essentially a new operating system. It's configured via a web interface and gives you much more control over your internet connection than the default software. It also supports a range of add-ins. In their own words:
"Gargoyle is the only firmware that can be used to easily set bandwidth quotas for your users and make sure network resources are allocated fairly. Further, Gargoyle Routers can monitor both bandwidth usage and can be configured to track web usage so you know what your users are doing."
In this case "users" are family members.
The website gives a good run down on the general configuration. The area I spent most of my time on was Firewall Restrictions, where you can create restrictions and exceptions (whitelist); we had two of each:
The night before a school day the kid's internet cut off at 5pm, meaning they could set things up for study and/or have a bit of down time before they got into it, then they got 2 hours from 8 pm for research and/or general internet and then internet cut off at 10 pm to prevent them staying up all night on social media and Tumblr.
The kids were also given an hour or so of internet access in the morning. This was to give them a little time to check news/weather/email/updates before they left for school (practically speaking they were usually preoccupied with getting ready).
You may note those rules apply to "All Hosts", so that would cut us out were it not for the MAC address based whitelist exception:
All was good for a while, but kids like to listen to music while they study, so we added:
We are still waiting on the final results, however I'm proud of the effort they both put in; in that regard I believe the whole thing was a success.
A final note about trust
There's a family story that as a child I once said to my mother "when I grow up I'm only going to have one kid and I'm going to let them do anything!" (what sparked the outburst was lost in the retellings) so I never expected I'd be as strict a parent as I seem to be. From all this it might seem that I didn't trust my kids to do the right thing, but I really do. When it came to it I just said "if I were in their shoes what would help me?" and I then implemented it. I spared them the cognitive load of resisting temptation by removing it. It's also much easier to automate strict rules than flexible ones.
One thing I didn't really cover above is content; my kids knew I could look at the logs if I wanted, but I never felt the need. In respect to that, regardless of any technical fixes, barriers or monitoring, it's all just a stop gap. Thumb drives are cheap, most other kids' parents aren't technically savvy and can't put similar controls in place, other kids will have other friends; trying to stop the kids from accessing particular content is a fool's errand. That's not to say you shouldn't put things in place, it's more to say that ultimately you have to trust you've done a good job as a parent and trust your kids to be good with their technology.
It's what I did.