VPNs - What parents need to know

It is becoming increasingly common for tech savvy kids to use VPNs to hide their location or even bypass parental controls. Now you might be entering a mild state of panic wondering a) what is a VPN and, b) how do I find out if my child is using one. Don’t worry - here is our guide to what parents need to know.

Written by Tech Expert:

Jessica Hill

A VPN is a ‘Virtual Private Network’. Put simply, a VPN is a piece of software that adds a layer of anonymity and privacy to devices using the Internet. How? Well a VPN works by hiding a device's IP address and encrypting upload/download data. An IP address provides an identity to a networked device using the Internet. By using a VPN, information like the location of the device and the activities taking place from that device, become far more difficult to uncover.

Why do kids use VPNs?

It depends - VPNs are not ‘bad’, in fact, they were traditionally used to provide a security measure for professionals connecting to corporate networks from an off-site location.  However, if your child is installing a VPN, it’s unlikely that this is their motive. So - why are kids installing VPNs? Well, there are three main reasons:

1. To override their school network filters or bypass parental controls.

Schools often require kids to bring their own laptop or iPad, which they then need to connect to the school’s WiFi. Ordinarily, the school’s network will block things like social media, non-learning related games, and inappropriate websites.  However, students have been known to use VPNs to bypass these blocks and access content that the school network would otherwise not allow.

How does this work? Imagine your child tries to access the web address porn.com, usually, school filtering would recognise this as an inappropriate website and block access. If however they are using a VPN, the command coming from their device to access the website would show as a random arrangement of characters rather than porn.com, meaning filters don’t recognise and block the site.

Similarly, when kids are accessing the Internet through a VPN at home, the parental control tools that you have installed on your child’s device see a different IP address, meaning that the rules that you have set for that device (such as blocked apps and websites) are not applied. It’s therefore important to opt for a parental control tool that is able to alert parents if their child attempts to download a VPN.

2. To use the Internet anonymously.

A VPN allows users to browse the internet with a greater sense of anonymity . Teens have been known to use VPNs to access or participate in some of the darker activities that the Internet has to offer, including illegal activities such as purchasing drugs.

3. To steal online content.

The most common reason teens use this technology is for pirating movies and TV shows. Many users like to access content, such as US Netflix, that is only available within the USA. They will often use a VPN based in the USA to make it seem like that is their location, which is totally illegal.

How can I tell if my child is using a VPN?

There are a few different ways that you can check to see if your child is using a VPN:

  • Type ‘VPN’ into the device’s app search. Although not foolproof, this is a quick way to check if any apps that provide a VPN have been installed onto the device. Tech savvy kids may remove a VPN from their device when not in use if they anticipate you checking, so periodic spot checks when they are on their device may be necessary.

  • If you are a Family Zone parental control tool user, you will receive an alert notification if your child attempts to install a VPN. You can also use your parent dashboard to search for a VPN on your child’s device.

How can I prevent my child from using a VPN?

There are a few steps that you can take to deter (and hopefully prevent) your child from using a VPN to break the rules:

  • If your child has tried using a VPN previously, or if you think they are likely to attempt installing a VPN, then letting them know that this is against the rules, and setting some consequences is a good place to start. If they are not aware of VPN technology, then just keep your conversation general (after all- you don’t want to give them ideas!).

  • Periodically check their device using the search method mentioned above.

  • If your child has an Apple device, you can block certain apps using Apple Screen Time. You can also set up a permission system for when your child wants to install a new app On Android, this can be achieved using Google Family Link

  • You can use Family Zone’s parental control tool to block and alert you to attempts to install a VPN. This is the most straightforward and more robust method for tech savvy kids who are likely to work their way around device controls alone.