Updated November 4, 2020
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:
A 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:
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: iOS 14 – What’s New for Parents?
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.
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 51% chance they’re trying to get around something, but, first, give him/her a chance to tell you why. Be a loving investigator.
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, Covenant Eyes, or Bark who are now using a VPN?
A tech-savvy dad raised this question on Facebook, so we’ve added some explanation here.
Mobicip, Covenant Eyes, and Bark 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 all 3 companies intimately).
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Chris McKenna, Founder: A man with never-ending energy when it comes to fighting for the safety and protection of children. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, and podcasts for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony was the catalyst for draft legislation and ongoing discussion that could radically change online child protection laws and earned PYE the NCOSE Dignity Defense Alert Award in 2020. The PYE team has performed over 1,700 presentations at schools, churches, and nonprofits and was featured in the Childhood 2.0 movie. Other loves include running, spreadsheets, nature, and candy.