What’s a Parent of Younger Kids to Do About the Internet?

Despite my role at LearnZillion, leading the construction of one of the more popular sites for students, I’m not convinced the Internet is a safe place for kids, unprotected.

Incredibly, the Internet has become this global city—a warehouse of the world’s information, an international marketplace, our long term memory organizer and storage unit, and an endless educational playground. And yet, at the same time, it has become a cesspool of the most vile and disgusting ideas, words, media, and communities humankind has ever concocted—all conveniently streamed into our houses! It’s my personal and professional opinion that it is generally unsafe for kids. It begs for guardrails—badly.

Until the powers that be fix the situation, what’s a parent of young kids to do about the Internet? Our solution as a family until recently was to keep ours off it. We got them an Apple iPad Mini, locked it down, and installed a handful of Lotinsky-approved apps for the kids when we were traveling. We picked up an NES and an SNES Classic for our video game fix. But then, last year, I learned my oldest, who was in 2nd grade, had access to the Internet at school during class, including Google Search. We needed to get ahead on the home front.

Most of the options for Internet parental controls are either a pain for parents to configure or a frustration for kids to use. For two decades now, I’ve followed and experimented with the options available. Even though my access was practically unrestricted growing up (my parents relied on their kids’ consciences), I knew my kids weren’t going to be given that same level of freedom. I knew what the Internet was back in the 90’s, and I foresaw its inevitable future. I wanted to be ready when the time came. We’ve always planned on being active parents and not hand over parental responsibilities like open and frank conversations with our kids, teaching discernment, and warning of the dangers of certain content and people. That said, we have always determined to protect our kids with technology as best we can.

We’re introducing our third grader and kindergartener to the Internet through a Chromebook and Google Family Link. We’re providing access to a selection of educational sites their teachers recommended, a few we’ve selected, and Google Docs and Drawings (not Search) for creative expression—nothing more.

After a little bit of setup to designate my wife as another parent in the Google Family Group, Family Link was very easy to configure and manage for the kids. We start with everything blocked. If the kids get their hands on a web domain that we haven’t whitelisted yet—either one they type in by hand or reach through a link on a whitelisted site—they get blocked by their Chrome web browser and are given the option to request access from their parents. Requesting access prompts my iPhone and my wife’s for us to allow the domain or dismiss the request. If we allow a domain, any content on it is allowed. This is extremely convenient because most other products require approving a series of domains or IP addresses for a site to work, since most pages pull in content and code from other web domains. We can rest assured the whole site will function, and it is a forcing factor in deciding whether an entire site is worthy or not. This convenience and the forcing factor mean we’ll actually use the parental controls rather than throw our hands up and tear it all down or write-off technology for the kids altogether. The only slight annoyance is that many Google products are hosted on google.com proper—no subdomain. God knows it’s going to be a few years before I whitelist that root domain!

We’ve been using this setup for months now and it’s holding up great. I’m sincerely hoping that Apple takes a cue from Google Chrome OS and Family Link. We prefer Apple’s ecosystem, but this works great for now. Thank you, Google!

I hope this is helpful for other parents trying to navigate the World Wide Web Wild West. Stay strong, parents!

P.S. While I’m on this tangent of what works and what doesn’t, we love how Netflix has a kids experience—although a short lockout code from the adult profiles once the kids one is activated would be nice. Don’t even get me started with Amazon Prime Video though! There are shows on Prime Video we would love for the kids to watch, like Reading Rainbow, but we throw our hands up and avoid it. Even I don’t want to see all the suggestive B- and C-grade movies they’ve managed to amass.

P.P.S. Wait, what about Circle? You’ve probably seen ads for it or heard about it. I love the concept, but I’m not a fan of the technical implementation. It relies on a hacking technique that has a good chance of slowing down your home network and overall connection to the Internet. Good luck letting your kids get into online gaming with something that can add latency to your connection. I already have enough trouble trying to get my Verizon Fios Quantum Gateway to clock in above 50 Mbps, which is half of what we pay for—100 Mbps. I simply don’t want the hassle.

Thank you, Robert Voit, creator of JASC Paint Shop Pro

Robert —

In the early to mid-90s my hobby was making video games of various sorts with my friend Jesse. Our tools were Recreational Software Designs Game-Maker 2.0 and your creation JASC Paint Shop Pro (PSP). I discovered both in a software mail order catalog and purchased them with my lawn mowing cash. We used PSP to design our title screens mostly.

I had purchased the shareware version of PSP, which came with a 30-day trial period. I discovered that if I simply uninstalled and reinstalled PSP, we would get another 30-days of free use. But, my conscience didn’t feel good about my discovery. It was stealing–plain and simple. I sent JASC a brief letter explaining how we were using PSP and asking for permission to continue using it. I figured, the worst that could happen is that you could say “no” and I would have to save up to buy the full version. The best that could happen is that you would say “yes” and we would be back in business.

To my shock and surprise, you sent me the following reply:

Robert Voit JASC Paint Shop Pro

You included a boxed version of PSP with your letter. I couldn’t have been more surprised or excited. It’s still one of my favorite childhood memories to this day.

Only a year or two later, Jesse and I stopped making our games. The limitations of Game-Maker were quite real, and something bigger had arrived: The World Wide Web.

I quickly taught myself HTML and continued to use PSP as my image editor–even later paying for upgraded versions. (Version 6 was my favorite!) I made websites on top of lawn mowing to earn cash throughout high school and college, which helped pay for school. The experience set me up to be a career website and web app builder (see PC World, September 2006, page 37). I couldn’t have done it without PSP. And I always liked it better than Adobe Photoshop, which I got to use during a few summer jobs.

Your kindness taught me three things: honesty and hard work are rewarding–both spiritually and materially–and that it’s fun to surprise and delight and help those whom you can. It was no surprise to me years later to learn that JASC was acquired by Corel. Your life’s hard work, honesty, and kindness rewarded you, and I couldn’t have been happier for you.

Thank you for teaching me some valuable lessons and your gift that summer. I’m grateful.

Although Jesse and I never officially shipped a game to market, I dug up one of them for old time’s sake and to finally follow through on my end of the deal. Here’s a video of Xylon.

Thanks again,

Ian

P.S. For folks interested in the Paint Shop Pro story, read this great Motherboard article.

You Don’t Need to Attend a Prestigious School to Network Well

I spent my first two years in higher-ed at our local community college, followed by two more at the University of Maryland (UMD), where I earned a bachelors in computer science. Both schools ranked okay nationally–especially for public schools–but I got grief from certain life advisers at the time for not attending a more prestigious school, like Carnegie Mellon or MIT.

I valued my family and friends too much at the time to move away, and I didn’t want to accumulate crippling debt. I was inclined to stay local. One thing I weighed losing out on was the ability to rub shoulders with future leaders. Being a commuter student who lived an hour off campus meant I would be spending most of my campus time in class, at the library, or in the computer lab. My classmates and I weren’t the best at networking. It simply wasn’t in the undergraduate CS culture at UMD.

I appreciate the connections I made while there, while also regretting not taking more advantage of the time I had with them or seeking out even more connections. I have learned since then that I didn’t need a prestigious school to network well. Several of my former classmates or schoolmates I met for the first time in industry years after graduation. We compared notes, figuratively, and realized we were in many of the same classes and even had vague recollections of each other. They have been great coworkers, advisers, and friends over the years. They are leaders at significant organizations. And I’ve had the fun of seeing them run circles around people who attended more recognized schools. Here’s just a smattering of examples:

  • Director of Engineering at Stitch Fix
  • Staff Engineer at VMware and later Senior Software Engineer at Microsoft
  • Senior Consultant at Carbon Black
  • Senior Consultant at Microsoft
  • Engineering Manager at Capital One
  • Engineer at InstaCart
  • Principal Product Designer at Main Street Hub
  • Chief Product Officer at GlobalGiving
  • A co-founder at LivingSocial
  • And another I reconnected with at a private event at Skywalker Ranch

I have a wealth of connections and friendships that I’m extremely grateful for–all who attended the same public school I attended.

I’m not belittling prestigious schools in the least. I’m simply encouraging us all to get past the stereotype that to make significant professional connections you have to attend a prestigious and expensive school. Don’t limit your opportunities like I did those two years; you’re probably just a few feet from greatness.