KoalaSafe is a gadget that lets you control how your kids use the internet. It’s drop-dead simple to use, and can cut access at specific times, or to specific sites, or both. And it doesn’t require any spyware or blocking software to be installed on your kids devices, making it harder to hack and easier for you to police.
It’s easy to say that parents should take full responsibility for their kids’ internet use. They should put the computer in the living room where parents can keep an eye on what their kids are up to, and they should provide alternative activities. The problem with that is that, increasingly, kids are using mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, and these are much harder to police. You can use an iPad under the bed covers, after all, just like we all used to read books after lights-out.
The KoalaSafe plugs into your existing router and creates a new wireless network. This network can have its internet access cut at any time you choose–you could switch it off overnight, for example, to stop nocturnal surfing from bed. You can also block specific websites (a permanent Facebook ban, for example).
The advantages of a centralized block are twofold. One, you don’t need to configure every device individually. Apple’s devices, for example, have excellent and extensive parental controls, but you need to set it up on every machine. The second advantage is that the kids don’t have continual physical access to the KoalaSafe, like they might with their tablet. That makes hacking harder.
Cutting off the internet can give them a few hours away from the incessant informational drip of social networks and games, but it makes you the bad guy. The KoalaSafe is designed to deflect the blame.
“Reactions have been incredibly varied,” KoalaSafe founder Steve Pack told Co.Exist. “A few customers have relayed stories of tantrums and World Word III playing out in their living rooms, particularly if they haven’t discussed what’s going to happen beforehand! However, there are also lots of parents who have been very surprised their kids simply accept it. When they see the ‘The internet is off’ screen, they interpret that as information, not as a parental directive.”
The difference is subtle, but Pack says that kids seem fine with limited access when it’s the computer that’s in charge, instead of their parents.
“We are all (and digital natives particularly) accustomed to being told information by computers and accepting it,” he says. “When it comes from a parent, it feels far more arbitrary, which is why kids get so mad.”
Any parent knows the importance of establishing routines for things like meals and bedtimes. The KoalaSafe lets them do that for the internet, too. Further evidence for the advantage of strict schedules comes from an unexpected place.
“Another surprising thing we’ve found is parents of autistic children being a very engaged submarket,” says Pack. “Autistic kids generally love their computers and they love routine. To have that taken away by a parent is incredibly stressful them. However, if it’s a machine simply operating according to a schedule, that’s something different.”
Not surprisingly, parents are happy to avoid a major source of conflict. “We’ve received emails telling us KoalaSafe changes the dynamic in the family, where they are no longer the bad guy taking time and devices away,” says Pack. “Instead the kids can come and ask for more time. We’ve had parents say we’ve transformed their relationship with their kids and have eliminated the biggest source of stress in the home.”
The device is configured using a companion app, and this tries to help a parent get up and running, but lets them fine tune the filters. They can block specific sites, for example, but they can also toggle access to any site that KoalaSafe blacklists by default, if they don’t agree with the decision.
“We block adult and violent sites by default,” Pack told us, “but then it’s up to parents to decide about categories like social media, and individual apps like Facebook and Instagram.” The service uses commercial blacklists as a starting point for its filters, and also age-rates many sites based on those sites’ own age recommendations. The parent can then quickly set broad restrictions using these presets.
If you’re using one of your kids’ devices, or perhaps that increasingly mythical family PC, and you realize you really need to check Facebook right now, you can enter a PIN to gain temporary access. You can also remotely configure the KoalaSafe from a companion smartphone app. The app can also give you details about how your children are using the internet, with charts to show time spent online, and the breakdown of sites visited, by category.
Blocking network access effectively make a modern device useless. While there are plenty of things you can do with an offline tablet–reading a book, taking guitar lessons, drawing–the majority of kids use their devices the same way we do: wasting time on games and social networks. I asked Pack if kids still use their devices while they’re cut off.
“Occasionally we hear about that–there are some mildly addictive offline games,” he said. “The vast, vast majority though are online. Apps like Facebook are specifically designed by psychologists. The combination of social interaction, drip feeding information, positive reinforcement loops etc., create very powerful urges to stay online. Same goes for games, particularly with social aspects. Those are the ones that get kids hooked for hours. Playing solitaire for a while when the internet goes off might be fun for a while, but kids tire of it.”