What is a VPN and How Kids Use Them to Hide their Online Activity
By Jamie Siggard
This is part one in a two-part series. To see part one click here.
For those tech-savvy kids out there (which is most kids!), they may have beat the system and installed a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is a service that allows you to access the web safely and privately by routing your connection through a server which hides your online actions from your ISP. Essentially, the ISP data is gibberish if obtained.
VPN’s are often free, but even the paid options are very affordable. They also are incredibly easy to install on phones, tablets, or computers. There are countless options for VPN’s, however, here are a few that are popular:
- Hotspot Shield
A common reason kids use a VPN is to get around parental controls. Bypassing controls allows access to whatever may be blocked whether it be games, pornographic sites, or streaming platforms. If there are time restrictions set through parental controls, a VPN can be downloaded which would surpass the restrictions allowing more time. Additionally, the VPN would travel with them to school, circumventing any school-wide filters and firewalls, and granting access to anything and everything, without a trace. Bottom line, if your child is using a VPN you will have no knowledge or control over their internet use and for that reason, it is imperative to find out.
How can I tell if my kid is using a VPN?
If you suspect something, the first step would be to ask them directly. Don’t beat around the bush, simply ask them if they use a VPN and why. That’s when you can dig into the device itself.
On iPhones, type “VPN” into the search bar. Does anything pop up? Next, check the top left of the screen for a little icon next to the service provider name… the icon will simply read “VPN”. If you still haven’t found anything, go to the app store and see if a VPN app has ever been downloaded by following these steps:
- Touch the magnifying glass icon at the bottom of the App Store
- Type “VPN” into the search bar at the top
- Search for apps that have the download cloud next to them. If you find a cloud, it means they’ve downloaded one at some point, but they may not have it anymore. If it says OPEN, they are currently using one. If it says GET, they’ve never downloaded it with that Apple ID
For Androids, touch the icon on the main screen that holds the apps. In the search bar at the top, type in “VPN”. Then go to the Google Play store and investigate. Search for “VPN” and click through some different VPN apps looking for buttons that say UNINSTALL and OPEN. If you find either of those, it means the app is on the phone somewhere. One last way of checking is to swipe down on the home screen and if there’s a VPN running, you should see a notification.
*Be aware that VPN software can be downloaded on laptops and desktops as well. If you have suspicions, explore the internet connection and software on these devices.
What can I do if I find out that my child is using a VPN?
- Don’t jump to conclusions and be accusatory. You want them to open up and be honest. Give them the opportunity to explain themselves in an atmosphere of care and safety.
- If the VPN has been downloaded for dishonest reasons, delete the VPN from their phone and set parental controls blocking the App Store (for iPhones) or Google Play (for Androids) so they won’t be able to redownload it.
- Talk to your kids about the importance of this issue. Explain to them that you want to respect their privacy, but hiding their activity from you isn’t honest. Help them understand that rules are set because of safety concerns and out of love.
- Follow up. Check their phones regularly and engage in frequent conversation about technology. Help them learn to be wise stewards of their devices.
Your kids need you. They need your loving, concerned heart and your time. To help continue the conversation about the importance of honesty as well as other vital topics, check out 30 Days to a Stronger Child.
Or check our latest book, Conversations with My Kids: 30 Essential Family Discussions for the Digital Age. Full of lively, timely discussions about changing technology, social media, using tech for good, and so much more!
Jamie recently graduated with her degree in Marriage and Family Studies from Brigham Young University – Idaho. She currently lives in the greater Seattle area and works as a nanny. Seeking adventure, truth, and strong relationships are her recipe for happiness, and she hopes to help others find similar joy through her writing.