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Parenting in the digital age means a lot of doodads like this

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Parental anguish

There was a time when parents struggled with the question of computer use. Should their children be using computers? Should they play games? How long should they stay on?

While the questions remain, the reality is sinking in that in a modernized society, computer use really isn’t a choice. That goes doubly so for children, both because of how they and their friends interact and entertain themselves and because of the world in which they are preparing to one day work.

Children and teens today use computers to stay in touch with friends and family, to play games, to do homework, to watch television, to stay informed.

The computer problem facing parents today isn’t quite as dichotomous as it used to be. Now the issues parents struggle with is much granular.

I can’t, for instance, simply limit my teenage son’s access to computers and the internet. His school did away with books and only uses tablets. His friends rarely, if ever, use phone calls to communicate. He doesn’t watch television, he watches YouTube.

And unfortunately, the parental controls built into the majority of personal computers seems to be struggling to keep up.

But that’s not for a lack of trying.

xbox_custom_controller

Since launching Windows 10 and the Xbox One, Microsoft has been steadily trying to keep up with parental requests for in-built controls.

Currently, both systems are tied to a single sign-in which offers a bit of universal control for parents. A parent can, for instance, control and track spending, modify what games and websites can be visited based on content and receive weekly reports.

But once you get into the weeds of the system, Microsoft’s current solution falls apart. For instance, while you can create curfews and time limits for use on Windows computers, you can’t do that for the Xbox.

Matt Lapsen, general manager of Xbox devices marketing, said the team is aware of some of these shortcomings and is constantly working to add requested features.

“Ensuring families have safe and fun experiences on our platforms is incredibly important to us, and it’s our ongoing mission to offer the most comprehensive family features possible so parents have peace of mind when their children play games, use apps, watch movies or TV, and listen to music on Xbox One and Windows 10,” he told me recently.

But he couldn’t say why time limits and curfews still aren’t a part of the Xbox controls.

Fortunately for parents looking for a bit of help, a number of companies have stepped into the vacuum created by that absence.

Circle Media creates a little white box called the Circle that can automatically detect your home’s internet connections and the devices connected to them, and then hand control of everything over to one or two people through a website or smartphone app.

Family view
Circle Media

The device started out as a failed Kickstarter project, but was quickly backed by Disney once it landed on its feet. It’s the brainchild of three dads who were frustrated and concerned about how to manage the internet access of their teens.

Once installed, a parent can pop open an app and assign all of the devices connected to the internet in the home to different people. Then those people can be given time limits, curfews and websites that they can’t visit. There’s even a pause button that freezes all internet until you unpause it.

I tried it in my house for a month or two and it was a revelation. It also took about two months before my son figured out a very technical way around the system.

Jelani Memory, CCO of the company, says there’s very much a back and forth going on between the company and those impacted by their device. And he finds it sort of exhilarating.

“To be completely honest, it’s really exciting for us,” Memory said. “The discussions on some forums about ways to beat our system is very heavy and that means it’s working. If it was obvious to get around it, it would be quiet.

“Sometimes we even have kids write in to us with big holes or small holes they’ve found and they’re so proud of finding it they want to tell us.”

Memory acknowledges that Circle, like similar devices, is not hack-proof. But that’s not really the point is it? Devices like this are really designed to minimize the potential of daily arguments and serve as a reminder about rules.

Ultimately, though, parents still have to parent and these sorts of controls can serve as a great way to kick off conversations about computer use and game time.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.