Marc had no idea that his two children, ages 10 and 6, were spending hours watching YouTube videos late at night when he installed the parental controls offered by Apple tablets. Although many parents worry about controlling their children’s access to the devices they have in their homes by installing controls, on many occasions they are not entirely effective. We are talking about a digital native generation that is many steps ahead of their parents in computer skills and who obsessively look for ways to bypass the limitations.
In Marc’s family, children can only use iPads on weekends in the evenings. Marc makes sure that these limits are met thanks to the Time of Use tool that is built into every iOS operating system. “One night I went into the little one’s room and saw that he was watching YouTube videos. I was sure that the applications on that iPad were not working at that time and I was surprised,” he says.
The most curious thing about this situation is that Marc works in an Apple specialty store, and he realized that his six-year-old son had found a bug in the control application that his father had installed. “I was able to see that from Apple’s message application, iMessage, he could interact with other applications such as YouTube and preview the videos included in the messages. Apple’s Usage Time allows messages and calls to continue to function without limits as in “security mode”. “This very clever young boy had found that way to get out of control and I didn’t even know it,” says Marc.
From iMessage, he could interact with other applications such as YouTube and preview videos
What Marc doesn’t know is how his son got there, but he has his suspicions: “They unlocked the iPad and saw that the only app they had left to use was the message app. So they would start sending messages to each other from one room to another. On one of these occasions, they had to try out the application’s options and saw the YouTube icon,” says the parent who, through a tutorial, has managed to block the applications that appear within iMessage and who, in addition, has installed a parental control on his WiFi network so that his children cannot access certain content on the Internet.
“I felt a little betrayed because I sensed that they had been breaking the rules of the house for days, but I didn’t scold them. In fact, I thought it was so clever that, in a way, I congratulated him for finding that way to get around the parental controls,” Marc recalls in a friendly way.
For Charo Sádaba, an expert in Youth and Technology and professor of Communication at the University of Navarra, this type of problem has only one educational solution.
“The first step is to understand that we cannot pretend that the only control is put by technology itself. We are capable of exercising a certain amount of control,” the expert explains. And she appeals to “example” as the best educational tool, emphasizing that parents must transmit to their children, through their own routines, the habits of using the devices at home.
“You need to understand that when technology makes it so easy and we can’t expect that control from it, we have to implement it ourselves and make it clear that there is time to do many more things than just being glued to a device screen” says Sádaba.
Robert’s family has been dealing with his 12-year-old son’s tricks to get around the parental control his father set up a few months ago. Robert says that at his son’s school everyone uses the iPad to do their homework. He lets himself use it at home, but in such a way that most applications are disabled unless they are needed for schoolwork. That includes apps like Word, Powerpoint, Excel, etc.
“I caught him surfing the Internet one day and didn’t understand how he did it if the apps were blocked,” Santos says. “His modus operandi was to use ‘Keychain Access‘, an Apple application that manages the passwords for your websites such as Gmail, Facebook, etc. Apparently, when you try to change one of these passwords, you open a very basic default browser that has the tablet built in and that does not work as an application. That gave me a free way to browse the Internet using the browser’s address bar,” he explains.
When using Keychains, in iOS, and trying to change a password, a browser window is launched that allows you to skip the controls
Robert claims that even if he deleted the passwords saved in Keychain Access, his son could create new passwords just to access that browser. And, according to him, the worst part is that that application cannot be blocked because it works as a part of the system’s preferences. In the end, Robert gave up and configured his Wi-Fi network to remove his son’s iPad from the Internet during certain hours. “Kids are like that. If you put limits on something, they’re already looking for ways to get around it. I felt a little cheated because he had time to use his tablet, but he always needed more and more” Robert says.
Paula has experienced a similar story. This mother installed “Family Link” on Android so that her son, who is only five years old, would not have access to some of the content circulating on the Internet and to limit the time of use of some mobile games. This is a Google parental control application that allows you to block applications and content or set time limits and a “bedtime” on your devices. It also gives parents the option to remotely control the activity and even the location of their children.
“In my son’s case, I let him download apps that are suitable for children up to the age of 10. This is something I consider necessary because there are games that are very violent,” explains Paula. In addition, from your own mobile, you can remotely control all your child’s activity.
“Until a few days ago, I lived quietly because Google does not let children of my son’s age install the YouTube application and instead they can use the version for minors: “YouTube Kids”, says Paula, who recently discovered that her son entered the normal version of YouTube with an amazing method.
“I discovered it all one day when he asked me to comment together on a YouTube account of a user he likes to watch. I thought he was watching it on YouTube Kids and I told him you couldn’t watch the video comments from there. Then he confessed to me that by logging in through “My Talking Tom“, a children’s application where you take care of a cat, you can redirect through the browser to the standard YouTube application“, Paula says.
From the children’s app “My Talking Tom” they can enter YouTube, even if they have limited
“When I found out how I got in where I wanted to go, I was surprised at how skilled children can be. Even though he couldn’t comment on the videos, because YouTube asked him to open an account, he could read them and watch all kinds of videos” she says.
Other ingenious ways to evade surveillance controls
The truth is that neither Marc, nor Robert, nor Paula are the only parents who have to deal with this kind of problem at home. Reddit’s website about Apple has been filled with comments from parents who have lived through unbelievable – similar experiences.
In the thread ‘My kid managed to pass Screen time limit‘, a user tells how when his young child exceeded the time limit and applications were blocked, he downloaded applications that had been previously installed and then deleted. This way, he could use them without time limitations. What seemed like an anecdote turned into a debate with almost 500 comments from parents who didn’t know what to do to stop their little ones from skipping parental controls.
Skipping parental controls is not unique to Apple. Also in Android’s Reddit thread, many parents are asking for advice on how to increase vigilance and share their experiences. One father tells how his seven-year-old daughter managed to bypass the controls of the Family Link app.
He tells how he caught his daughter using the Google Assistant to bypass the Family Link blocking on her mobile. “For some reason, the Google Assistant was still working, and what she was doing was asking her by voice to open ‘any application that was installed on the device’, until YouTube was opened,” he says. “I was petrified to see that Google, a billion-dollar company, was being overtaken by a seven-year-old girl” says the outraged father.
“I was petrified to see that Google, a billion-dollar company, was being overtaken by a seven-year-old girl”
The truth is that just as parents use the Internet to learn how to keep their children from skipping tests, so do tweens share their tricks and strategies online. “My dad is going to install Qustodio on my computer and I need a way to bypass it,” writes the user “dontfeed_theducks” on Reddit. Qustodio, like Family Link, is another application for Android systems and iOs that allows parents to block applications, see what their children are doing on social networks such as Facebook, Instagram or Whatsapp or set time limits. “I just create a partition of the disk and it works,” says another user in the conversation.
“Bypass Qustodio or almost any other parental control on Windows PC,” reads the title of another Reddit thread. Here a young man mentions a series of steps to bypass the controls. “Open an image that is a YouTube capture just as the time limit is about to begin. Qustodio will block that image thinking it is YouTube and will allow the use of the rest of the applications, since it cannot block two applications at the same time”, explains the user “SniperEternal“.
Max is the father of a 14-year-old son who tells how he has to deal with his son continuously at home to limit his time using the devices and why he decided to install the Family Link app. His son uses the devices to listen to music, watch YouTube videos and, to a lesser extent, play games. “I allow him no more than two hours a day, between 10:30 and 21:00, but for him it’s not enough and he’s even changed the parental control settings to get around the limits.
“It took me a while to realize that I’ve started checking his history from time to time and I always find that he’s visited tutorials to get around the controls in all sorts of ways on youth forums and social networks,” says Max. “In the end, we sat down with his mother one day and he assumed that she had changed the settings at some point, but we’ve come to terms with that so that it won’t happen again and we’ll gradually gain her trust,” explains this father.
Parents increasingly aware of their children’s activities
Miquel López is an Apple technology trainer and gives talks to parents of students in several private schools who have switched from traditional textbooks to iPads. “Parents come scared because they say their children have been given tablets that they know how to use very well but that they, having no idea, cannot control them. We teach them parental controls such as Time of Use and explain how they can limit the time their children use the iPads”.
In these events, Lopez teaches parents how to configure the tablet’s browser so their children can only access certain Web pages. She also teaches parents how to view Apple’s built-in Usage Time history to see their children’s movements and block it from being deleted.
“A good tip-off that we also teach parents and that surprises even the children themselves is that from the application ‘Battery’ that is incorporated into each tablet you can see which applications have consumed more energy and how long they have been used. If we see that YouTube is the one that has done it the most and it was supposed to be blocked, then we find out that the child has managed to access it somehow,” he explains.
The iPads that Lopez works with belong to private educational institutions and are protected with a layer of MDM (Mobile Device Management) software. This tool allows students to accurately monitor what is happening on their iPads and, in turn, limit access to applications and content, as well as camera and system settings. Thanks to this MDM, the teacher can see all the screens of the students’ devices and even display them on the blackboard in front of the class. But this tool only works within schools. That is, when the children arrive home, the control is only up to the families.
“Parents know almost nothing about parental controls. They know how to use the iPads in a very basic way and they don’t go into the controls. As soon as you explain these things to them, their faces light up, knowing that they can already catch their children playing outside of hours,” says Lopez. “I think kids will always going to find a method by which they can get away with all or part of the limitations. And I think that technologies like Apple will take note and, in future updates, solve it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, after a while, kids find another loophole to slip through,” the expert concludes.
Finally, the only certainty is that we have created a technology that although it has solved many problems of daily life, it has also created major problems that were previously non-existent.