Millions of kids have been issued devices for school this year whether they’re learning at home, in-person or a combination of the two. Chromebooks are often the device of choice because they’re an economical option.
With increased access to the internet comes an increased risk of digital dangers, distractions, and disorderly conduct. Chromebooks present an unusual challenge because they’re made to operate solely online, meaning they don’t have a hard drive to run software offline. They also aren’t part of the Mac or PC ecosystem, so any existing parental controls through those operating systems won’t apply.
If you’re a family using Chromebooks for remote learning, you’ll definitely need a strategy to help enforce boundaries that keep kids safe and on-task. If your Chromebook is school-issued, you may or may not have more safety features available to you. In any case, here are five tips to make virtual school safer on the Chromebook.
1. Limit what the Chromebook can do.
Because Chromebooks require the internet to function, they also offer the unlimited opportunities of the internet during times when students are supposed to be learning or studying.
In order to turn parts of the Internet “off” you’ll need a tool that will enable you to turn off access to whole categories of apps or platforms (social media, for example) or even specific platforms (Hulu, YouTube, etc). This kind of customization keeps your kids on the science lesson and off of Minecraft videos. Here are some tools that can help you do this:
- Google Family Link This is free, but not available for school-issued devices. *You should know that if your child is over 13, Google Family Link will allow them to opt out of parental controls, although you will be notified.
- A parental control tool like Bark or Circle Home Plus are really useful here as well.
- A router with some parental controls baked in, such as the Gryphon.
It’s important to filter web search content to avoid as much inappropriate content as possible. Here are some tools for filtering:
- Enable Google Safe Search. This is the most basic tip for every family. It’s free, takes 30 seconds to set up, and it makes a huge difference in preventing accidental exposure to pornography.
- Set up a filter on your router. Router filters block content before it even hits a device using your home internet. Some routers come with filters built in. You just need to adjust the settings to fit your family’s needs. If your router doesn’t have a filter or you want a stronger one, you can add a filter like Circle Home Plus or Bark.
2. Give the Chromebook school hours.
There are multiple ways you can utilize time restrictions to shut down the Chromebook’s internet access before or after school hours, or even pause the internet, if you need to. Many internet service providers offer this capability, but you can also set up the restrictions using the tools mentioned above: Google Family Link, a wifi parental control system, or a router with parental controls.
The most basic time settings will allow you to apply restrictions to the entire device, but some parental control systems will allow you to customize time restrictions per platform or app (see #3 below).
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3. Set boundaries around gray areas.
When it comes to school-related internet use, you might find that there are several “gray areas” For example, does your kid need to watch YouTube videos for a certain class? It’s possible. Here are some ways to set those boundaries:
- Utilize YouTube’s “Restricted Mode” and set a daily time limit for the entire YouTube platform/app (so they can’t fall down the rabbit hole).
- Parental control tools like Circle Home Plus will send an alert when an app’s limit is reached, so you know where your child has spent time and can inquire about whether or not it was school-related. (You might even be in the room, but occupied).
- Check your child’s Google Activity log, which itemizes all YouTube views and Google searches, even if they delete their browser history.
4. Think “cubicle” instead of “private office.”
In a traditional classroom setting where computers are used, kids can see each other screens, and so can their teachers. Students don’t use computers in private closets with closed doors at their school building, so make that your guiding principle for at-home learning as well.
If possible, provide accountability by keeping school devices in common areas instead of bedrooms. Even in common areas, you might want to utilize an additional monitoring tool so you can have another set of eyes on their usage.
One powerful tool is Bark*, which can scan their browser activity, and even their Google Drive files for indications of bullying, sexually explicit content, depression, profanity and more. Accountability is a powerful factor for success in the virtual school environment.
*Note: Unfortunately, Google prevents Bark from monitoring Google profiles for kids under 13 years old.
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5. Notice and comment.
The most powerful tool to keep kids safe online is 100% free: YOU. An engaged parent who clearly lays out expectations and follows through when correction or discipline is needed makes quite a difference in a child’s online experiences.
“I noticed you did a Google search for the new Cardi B music video. How did you hear about that? I watched part of it, and I’d like to talk with you about it.”
We may not be able to block or prevent every kind of content we find distasteful, but our kids still need to know that we’re checking in on them, adjusting boundaries, and providing consequences as needed.
For example, if your kid is finding the “chat” or “hangout” feature in Google for the first time, be prepared for many guiding conversations about what is and is not respectful, rude, or funny in that kind of forum.
Ask them to show you what kinds of things their classmates are chatting about, and remind them that they should not consider these threads as “private” because they are all happening online, which means they can be shared with or seen by people they may not know. Teenagers have been rejected by colleges because classmates published offensive Google doc activity from years previous.
Don’t wait, start today.
Determining the best approach to protect your kids on their Chromebooks will depend on their ages, what parental control systems you already have in place, and whether or not your budget allows you to purchase additional support solutions. But every parent can start today by utilizing these free solutions that would benefit any family’s online safety strategy:
Contact us! Are you already a Chromebook family? What tips and tricks have you discovered to make virtual school safer using Chromebooks? We’d love to hear!
Sarah Siegand is the co-founder of Parents Who Fight, an online safety organization that helps parents protect kids online. They support parents, and schools through workshops and consultations, providing resources, tools, and hands-on help. For more information, or to book a virtual training, go to parentswhofight.com.