Many technological devices and applications can be used in multiple ways and for either good or bad reasons. If you’re a parent and are curious about VPNs and if you children should be using one, we put together this quick post to introduce the topic. By the end of this article you will be able to answer “what is a VPN” and have some idea if it is right for your children.
What is a VPN
A VPN, or virtual private network, is essentially a service that routes an internet connection through a server. This hides your online actions and can make accessing the web safer. Many parents at this point probably read “hides your online actions” and decided this is not for kids. Don’t be too hasty with your judgment and let’s dig in deeper.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, a VPN can be used for naughty reasons. Kids trying to get around parental controls? A VPN is an excellent tool for that purpose (kids: please don’t actually do this!).
Think of the VPN as a steel-reinforced tunnel between your device and the internet. You enter the tunnel when you connect to the VPN via your device. The VPN then masks your IP address, so it would appear as if you are coming from a different location, then connects to the internet. That steel tunnel is tough to penetrate and provides protection, to a degree, for those wanting to hide their identity. The VPN will also encrypt incoming and outgoing data to protect it from prying eyes.
VPNs got their origin with remote workers. It allowed people to connect to a corporate network when they weren’t at the physical office. Today this is a little less necessary. Most websites, and certainly the ones an employee should be using, use the HTTPS protocol. Many browsers also notify you via a pop-up if you attempt to access a risky site. So while the original use-case may no longer be the leading use-case, other reasons for using a VPN exist.
Should Your Kids Use One?
At the end of the day this decision will really come down to you, the parent, and how much you trust your children. VPNs do make it more difficult to monitor your child’s online activity.
As I mentioned above a VPN can be used to get around parental controls and other limitations, such as a school network. The very nature of a VPN means that your children’s digital adventures will be hidden. For many parents this is a huge, and unnecessary, risk.
For the most part, I agree.
However, a part of me, the nerdy part, also wants my children to understand what a VPN is, how and why they are used, and to have experience using one.
While I certainly hope my kids don’t have much to hide from me, the use of a VPN could help obfuscate their online profiles from preying and unwanted eyes. The use of a VPN will also keep my kids more secure if they are out and accessing public WiFi or any other high risk network.
When Should Your Child Use a VPN?
I like to travel with my family. Prior to the pandemic we would take a trip once a year out of the country. It gives us an opportunity to explore another culture and world. This relates to VPNs because not all countries are as free and open as the U.S.
Let’s take a look at China. A number of years ago we took a family trip to see the Great Wall. It was amazing! However, I also encountered the Great Firewall of China. If you haven’t heard, this is China’s firewall that allows the government to censor and control what is allowed online.
While I was technically on PTO I still wanted to check my work email. The issue? The company I was with had us using Gmail and that cannot be accessed within China. I had to rely on a trusty VPN to check my work messages.
This is a fairly harmless example and, yes, a VPN could be used for much worse. However, it serves to highlight the fact that a VPN doesn’t automatically equal bad intentions.
For parents who have a child living or studying abroad a VPN could be a perfectly normal tool to ensure communication with family back home isn’t interrupted.
A VPN acts as a tunnel between your device and the internet. It adds security and privacy when you’re online. For certain cases, such as when accessing a risky network, they do have some benefit. However, most kids won’t need to use a VPN. It’s important to speak with your child about the benefits and risk of technology. However, it doesn’t mean that you must endorse or permit the use of that technology.
The use of a VPN will ultimately come down to the use case and your comfort level as the parent.