Parents Shocked School Accounts Don't Block Inappropriate Content

Cynthia Phelan, a mom of three grade schoolers, could not believe what she was seeing in her home computer’s browsing history.

“Some of it was just music videos, but I was also finding things that were pornographic in nature,” Phelan said.

Phelan sets strict parental controls on her Mac computer, allowing her 8-year-old, 12-year-old and 14-year-old to access only pre-approved websites. YouTube is strictly forbidden, according to Phelan.

But the Chicago mom said she found her kids were able to circumvent her parental controls by using their school-issued Google accounts. Phelan’s kids, like students across Chicagoland, do much of their homework and classwork online through Google Classroom. Phelan said the program has great educational benefits but what she didn’t realize was the whole host of applications and sites students can also access with those accounts.

“I think it would have been very important for (the schools) to tell parents up front that your children have access to these particular sites, and there may not be parental controls in place,” Phelan said. “Or that your kids will have access to these sites and these are how you can implement parental controls.”

CPS did not answer if the district notified parents of all the applications students have access to through their Google accounts. However, the district said online activity is monitored and restricted to protect students from accessing inappropriate content.

“CPS uses a range of protections and content filters on its network to help create a secure learning environment that allows district students to safely engage with 21st century education resources,” said CPS spokesman Michael Passman.

But content filtering only applies when students are on the district network.

That’s why it’s up to parents to monitor kids’ online activity, said Rich Wistocki, a veteran police detective in high technology crimes.

“When our kids get Chrome Books in school, parents think it’s safe because the school is giving it to them. It’s not safe,” said Wistocki, who runs consulting firms “Be Sure” Consulting and Juvenile Justice Online. “It’s safe while they’re in school, but it’s not safe when they’re at home.”

Wistocki said most parents can’t keep up with their kids’ technology and underestimate what they’re accessing online and through their devices.

“(Parental controls) are just not enough to understand exactly what your kids are doing on their devices,” said Wistocki. “Whatever app they’re using frequently, you need to be in it and sit with them.”

Wistocki said there are third-party applications, such as TeenSafe or KidGuard, that parents can download to remotely see what kids are posting, sharing and texting.

“It’s not spying. It’s your responsibility,” Wistocki said. “Parents need to know that there is no such thing as privacy for their children until they are 18.”

NBC5 Investigates found parental control restrictions on devices are not 100 percent accurate. We contacted Google and Apple, asking what content is restricted when parental controls are enabled, if their products contain enough parental restrictions and their advice for parents who are interested in making sure inappropriate content is blocked.

A Google spokesperson said device level restrictions on Apple’s iOS is designed primarily for Apple’s web browser, Safari, and do not extend to other browsers, like Google’s Chrome.

“If parents choose to let their kids use Chrome, we recommend enabling restrictions for websites using iOS and enabling SafeSearch manually in Chrome, which helps block explicit images, videos and websites from Google Search results,” said a Google spokesperson. “We’re always looking into ways to improve our services and hope to provide more options to our users in the future.”

An Apple spokeswoman touted Family Sharing, which allows parents to create Apple IDs for their children that are subject to parental supervision to share purchases, photos, and more. Apple also sent us links to parental controls on its operating system and Macs.

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