OpenDNS, YouTube & Parental Controls

Don’t look now, but there appears to be a post on this blog of a mildy technical nature! I know. I was surprised too.

The Internet is a truly wonderful place for children. There are games they can play, videos they can learn from and a plethora of other things that can excite and maintain their interest. I’m 28 years old and have been online since I was around 13, back in the heady days of Dial Up Pay Per Minute and Napster (the less said about the £600 BT Phone Bill for one month the better …). As I was growing up I seen things on the Internet I had never seen before, some of it was a little less than savoury. You can imagine. Thinking back on it now, it was awesome probably a bad thing.

As a ‘growed-up‘ parent, I’m relatively relaxed about the Internet. I work for an ISP. I spend upwards of 70% of my free time in front of a computer. I have no less than 10 Internet connected devices in my home at any one time. I fully understand the Internet and the beast that it can be. Which is why, it came as a bit of a surprise when I had such serious issues with one of it’s core members. YouTube. Not YouTube in itself, but some of the content on there and how difficult it was to stop little eyes and ears seeing and hearing things which are just not appropriate.

Some background first though. I have two boys. Generally well behaved. They are at time of writing, Four and Seven years old. As you would imagine being children of two people who met online, and earn their salaries from the online world, these little boys are fairly tech savvy. They can use tablet and other touch screen devices like they were born connected via an umbilical cord to Steve Jobs. They can navigate menus on a variety of consoles and I’m noticing, are starting to pick up things faster than I do. Which is both astonishing and frightening at the same time.

Historically we gave them free reign on the iPad and Android devices in our home. They played games like Subway Surfers and Angry Birds Star Wars, Jack our eldest even found an interest in Minecraft for the iPad. They eventually ventured into watching videos on services like Netflix and YouTube. Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer … the usual stuff.

The Problem

Grrrr. Arsehole!

Source: Jack, aged 7

Swearing had entered our little boys vocabulary. This happens with every kid eventually, whether you as a parent realise it or not. It did come as a bit of a surprise to us though. We don’t swear a lot around our kids and the first reaction was that this was coming from the school playground. Horrible little miscreant children … couldn’t possibly be emanating from our household. Don’t be ridiculous.

Except. It was.

You see, the Internet has this wonderful habit of Hyperlinking things together. So when you checked that your kid was watching Bob the Builder one minute, and 5 minutes later once the video was finished he was off watching another video suggested by YouTube it’s all going to be fine isn’t it? No. No it isn’t. Some of the videos visually are really and truly fine but when the audio gets turned up YouTube is not a safe place for little minds to be.

Let’s not pretend here though, this was our fault. We knew the risks and had been a little too relaxed about it. So it was our task to fix it.

The Task and Headaches

Block YouTube. Whilst we’re at it, let’s also implement some filters to block other unsavoury material. Easier said than done!

ISP Filtering

Some ISPs will provide filtering software which can be controlled via your online control panel. The variation of this we got from Talk Talk was OK. It allowed blocking certain categories of nasty things but was a bit cumbersome. It also didn’t block HTTPS connections. Believe it or not but my 7 year old figured this out within about 2 hours of us enabling the filtering. The clever little bastard!

Downloadable Filtering Software

No. This is painful and laborious to maintain. As I mentioned previously we’re averaging 10 Internet Connected devices at a time. Including some devices where installable software just isn’t viable. Playstations and Xboxes come to mind.

Disabling the Internet

My wife works on the Internet, just disabling the Internet again is massively inconvenient. Also, again the 7 year old figured out how to turn Wifi back on, AND went and found the password from the router. We then changed the password on the router, but still. Inconvenient so it’s a big no.

YouTubes Content Filter

Beyond pointless in this use case. Aside from the fact that to disable it you just need to log out. It only filters the very worst material. It doesn’t filter out videos with swearing or objectionable language which I was quite surprised by, considering they can detect copyrighted content within minutes of them being uploaded … why not have different patterns for adult language?

IP Blocking on the Router

YouTube have a ridiculous number of IP’s … they also have IP’s which are not their own. I tried blocking entire Class C networks on the router, and still I was finding things like embedded videos playing in my browser. It was driving me insane at this point.

OpenDNS to the Rescue

I stumbled upon the OpenDNS Parental Controls completely by accident. I was looking at their services for something completely unrelated and noticed the Parental Controls section. I figured it was worth a shot. So I signed up and configured my Router to use their Nameservers for DNS lookups. Within minutes, my problem was solved. YouTube in all of it’s variations was now blocked on my Network. I won’t go into the fine grained detail of how to configure it for your own home – OpenDNS do a really good job of that themselves during the signup process.

How It Works

It’s fairly simple really. Every time you hit a webpage, your computer has to figure out which IP Address that Website correlates to. You simply replace the default service which does this (usually your ISP) with OpenDNS. Whenever it detects a web request from a URL on the Naughty List, it redirects you to a holding page.

Device Agnostic

iPad, iPhone, Android, Playstation, Xbox, Laptops, Televisions … anything that is connected to the Internet via my router is covered by this new filtering service.

Where it doesn’t apply

Roaming. So if you’re in the car and the kids are using a device which is connected to the Internet over 3G or 4G. This will not help you. You’ll need to be a little more proactive and conscious in this scenario, although if my experience is anything to go by, after a few days of being cut off from YouTube, my kids appear to have forgotten it exists so it may be less of a problem when we’re out and about.

Whitelisting

You block based on categories, Pornography, Social Media, Social Video etc. However you can explicitly whitelist (or blacklist) particular URL’s. This is all quite easy via the OpenDNS portal.

Dynamic IPs

Most ISP’s nowadays will be happy to provide you with a fixed IP for your router. If you are still with one who does not though, fear not. OpenDNS provide a neat little application which runs in the background on your laptop/desktop which will periodically update them with your new External IP. This just helps ensure that the filtering is always active on your most recent IP given to you by your ISP.

Working around it

What you probably don’t realise day to day is just how often you use YouTube. People post funny videos, you might even want a tutorial on how to fix the kitchen sink, or maybe you want to see a review of a gadget before you buy it. So what happens then? Do you have to disable the filter for all your devices? Not at all.

You just need to force the device of your choice to use someone elses Nameservers. My preference? Ironically, Google. They provide a really useful article to do this on their Developer Pages.

Now, this workaround is great for adults. I fully expect it to become a problem though in around 4 or 5 years when Jack reaches an age where he understands how TCP/IP works and what Daddy has done to stop him getting to see all the boobies on the Internet! At that point I can then look at locking down access to those settings … for now though, this is just the thing we needed.

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