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VPN – What is it? Why is it on my Kid’s iPhone?

VPN for Parents

VPN – What is it? Why is it on my Kid’s iPhone?

There are four primary reasons a virtual private network (VPN) may be used on a mobile device or tablet:

  • To connect to a work-related server.
  • To guard privacy related to everyday use.
  • To evade parental controls.
  • (More recently) To allow parental control companies more insight into a device’s traffic.

The focus of this quick post is #3, because tech-savvy kids might be punching a hole in your carefully crafted parental controls with a VPN app!

What is a VPN?

According to John Mason at thebestvpn.com:

VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that lets you access the web safely and privately by routing your connection through a server and hiding your online actions.

This picture shows the difference between how most people use the internet versus using the internet with a VPN app:

What is a VPN

Why is there a VPN on my kid’s iPhone?

We gave you four reasons above, and when it comes to teens and VPNs, our experience tells us they typically use one because they’re trying to beat whatever parental controls you’ve put in place.

For example, if you’ve enabled “Limit Adult Websites” in the iOS 12 Content Restrictions, but you haven’t removed the App Store, then your child can download a VPN app and get to the internet and cut through Apple’s Content Restrictions.

Related post: Setting up Apples iOS 12 Screen Time Controls

Think of it this way. A VPN app creates a steel tunnel between the kid’s iPhone and the VPN server and then the VPN server builds a steel tunnel between it and the internet. Nothing gets through the walls of the steel tunnel. The reason for the VPN server in the middle is so that “the internet” sees the VPN server as the source and not the user, which protects privacy.

How do I know if my kid is hiding a VPN on their phone?

1. Ask them.

If you suspect something, start by looking your kid in the eye and asking if they’re using a VPN and if so, why. From there, it’s time to dig into the device itself.

2. Search for a VPN app on the phone and in the applicable app store.

On an iPhone, from the main screen, swipe right to expose a search bar at the top. Type in “VPN” and see if anything shows.

Second, go to the App Store on your child’s device and determine if they’ve ever downloaded a VPN app. You do this by:

  • Touching the magnifying glass at the bottom of the App Store.
  • Typing “VPN” in the search bar at the top.
  • Search for any apps that have the download cloud next to them (see image below). These indicate the app was downloaded at some point, even if it’s no longer on the device. If it says, “OPEN,” then the kid is busted because it’s still on the phone somewhere! If it says “GET,” then it has never been downloaded with that Apple ID.

For an Android device, touch the icon from the main screen that houses the apps on the device. Sometimes a white circle with six dots in it. In the search bar at the top, type VPN.

Second, go to the Google Play store and investigate.

  • Search for “VPN.”
  • Click through a few VPN apps and look for any that have buttons that say, “Uninstall” and “Open,” which means that app is on the phone, somewhere.

VPN and Parental Controls

3. Check the phone’s icons and notifications.

A final way to know if a VPN is running on the device is to look for the VPN icon, running on the device. On an iPhone, you’ll see the letters “VPN” in the upper left corner next to the cell signal.

On an Android device, if you swipe down on the home screen, you’ll see a notification that a VPN is running on the device. On some Android devices, there’s also a notification on the lock screen that a VPN is running. Android goes out of its way to ensure the user knows a VPN is running, since a VPN indicates a potential privacy violation if the VPN is running without permission.

What to do if there’s a VPN on my child’s phone?

(This section assumes you’re not using a company like Mobicip or Covenant Eyes to monitor the device. See the next section for more information about using a VPN for parental controls.)

Step one – don’t make assumptions. Yes, there’s a good chance they’re trying to be naughty, but first, give him/her a chance to tell you why. Be skeptical but loving.

Step two – assuming the VPN was downloaded for nefarious reasons, delete it.

Step three – remove the App Store (Apple) or Google Play (Android).

Related post: 3 Reasons to Disable the App Store

Step four – impress upon your child the importance of privacy, yes, but abusing that principle to hide online behavior from parents isn’t honest. It isn’t noble. Online secrets usually get us into trouble (whether you’re 14 or 40), eventually. And, the behavior will be punished.

What about companies like Mobicip or Covenant Eyes who are now using a VPN?

A tech-savvy dad raised this question on Facebook, so we’ve added some explanation here.

Both Mobicip and Covenant Eyes use aspects of a smartphone’s VPN technology in order to deconstruct and understand more of the activity on the phone. This is why Mobicip’s more recent release is now able to control all of the phone’s browsing activity, even through Safari. Covenant Eyes does something similar by enforcing Safe Search on both Google and Bing, no matter where those browsers are used.

The technology here is pretty advanced. These are companies who care deeply for the families who depend on their services (we don’t just say this – PYE knows both companies intimately).


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9 Comments
  • M McAbee
    Posted at 12:46h, 24 January

    We use Verizon SmartFamily app for our children’s phones. Why does this show up as a VPN on their phones?

  • Chris McKenna
    Posted at 22:31h, 25 January

    They must be using a VPN to monitor the phone’s traffic and perform some of its features. You also probably had to load mobile-device management onto the phone to allow it to dig deeper into the operating system.

  • W Munn
    Posted at 12:00h, 08 March

    Hi – I have found a VPN on my childs phone, but I cant see how to delete it…its an iPhone and it shows VPN in the top left corner, but no app tile for me to delete? Can you help?

  • Chris McKenna
    Posted at 17:22h, 08 March

    I replied via email, which I hope was helpful.

  • SJ De Mey
    Posted at 07:37h, 10 March

    I’m glad you counsel parents not to panic or jump to conclusions. Here’s one example of non-nefarious use. My daughter told me near the beginning of the school year that she has a VPN on her phone. The students are often asked to use specific apps during classes, but inside the building is a dead zone for many of the students’ phones. The Wi-Fi/server setup offered inside the building is sketchy, at best. The best work around the students have found is a VPN. The school occasionally discovers the VPN, shuts it down, and the kids scramble for access again so they can participate in class.

  • Greg Wilhelm
    Posted at 14:58h, 05 April

    Can the child disable the Mobicip or Covenant Eyes VPN? If so, can it be done without my knowledge? 1-2 years ago we tried Norton via VPN and I recall it being easily disabled

  • Mary
    Posted at 14:31h, 08 April

    I just downloaded an app similar to Covenant Eyes called Detoxify. It occasionally stops working, will keeping my VPN on prevent this from happening? Thanks!

  • Chris McKenna
    Posted at 00:19h, 09 April

    I’m not sure – it’s not an app we’re familiar with, so I would check with their customer support.

  • Chris McKenna
    Posted at 00:26h, 09 April

    Disabling the Mobicip VPN on iOS should send a notification to the parent app. Of the 3 ways on iOS that the VPN can be disabled, 2 of the 3 send a notification with Covenant Eyes, while the third (“shut off VPN on demand”) does not send a notification (which CE is trying to fix right now). For both, shutting off the VPN on Android sends a notification. Hope that helps!

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