This isn't only about restricting, banning or monitoring. Part of managing your kids' media means arming yourself with information so that you can make media and tech work for you — instead of the other way around. It's also important to realize when tech isn't the solution at all.
Here are our favorite hacks to improve what your kids watch, see, play and do.
YouTube's safety mode hides most age-inappropriate videos and also enables safe search in Google. Just go to YouTube and scroll down to the bottom of the screen. See the little box that says "safety: off"? Click it on.
The popular game network Steam offers lots of kid-friendly games such as The LEGO Movie Videogame, Portal and Sid Meier's Civilization V. But it also sells plenty of games that aren't appropriate for kids. With Steam Family View, you can help kids find the games they're ready for.
Online streaming video services aren't only for grown-ups. Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and Netflix offer high-quality, original kids' shows. Nutri Ventures (Hulu), Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street (Amazon) and Turbo FAST (Netflix) are only a few examples. Some advantages of streaming versus TV: There are fewer commercials, and programs don't run continuously.
Sometimes even serious gamers like a little less blood, gore and violence. A handful of popular titles, including Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin's Creed, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and Team Fortress 2, allow players to tone down or turn off the gory stuff. Check your kids' games to see if this feature is offered.
Need to cut out of work early for a soccer game or music recital? Got a sick kid on your biggest deadline day? Designate VIPs in your email or phone-contacts lists and you won't be disturbed until they — and only they — contact you. In iOS, you can create a VIP setting that notifies you of important emails. Android apps such as My VIP Calls only let through calls from specific people (such as your kid's teacher, who may call when you're in a meeting).
Kids are accumulating more and more passwords for school, services, social sites and even their devices — and it's easy to forget, misplace or share them by accident. But with increasing large-scale data attacks targeting log-in information, it's vital to protect the confidentiality and security of your information. Password managers not only generate passwords and keep them secure, they can help reinforce the importance of safeguarding your private information. A few to try: LastPass, 1Password and KeePass.
Kids don't necessarily have a built-in off switch. But learning when enough is enough is an essential digital-age skill. Software timers such as Timers4Me and Time Timer count down the minutes you've set, allowing kids to take responsibility for managing their own screen time. They work for other tasks too, such as practicing piano or getting ready to leave the house in the morning.
Kids are reading less than ever. Reverse this disheartening trend with free digital books, available for your computer or mobile device. In addition to local libraries, which use services such as OverDrive to let you check out free ebooks, a few websites offer free ebooks, including Project Gutenberg, the Open Library, Barnes & Noble (for use with the free Nook app) and Amazon (for use with the free Kindle app).
The free Find My Phone app for iOS or Android is a no-brainer to locate a lost device. But it also can help you check up on your kid, so long as he or she is attached to the phone. Installing the app and enabling the phone's location services displays the phone (and, presumably, its handler) on a map.
The Internet security company OpenDNS offers a download that lets you set up parental controls on your home network. The service is free, but you have to make a change to your wireless router (it's daunting but worth it, and the directions talk you through it.) This filtering service is nearly impossible for kids to defeat.
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