In high school, I tried to bypass my school’s security blocks with proxies I found online. My attempts never worked—the filter was way too stringent, and the system was smart enough to catch on as soon as I visited Facebook. When I graduated, I was happy to no longer have to worry about a digital nanny nagging me about the NSFW articles I wanted to read, but many Christian kids never escape digital parental controls.
Covenant Eyes is a small internet filter company based in Owosso, Michigan. Ron DeHaas founded the company 13 years ago, because he wanted to keep his teenage sons away from porn, while prompting a discussion about why nobody should ever watch porn. The company supplies users with software allowing them to block websites and track internet activity, along with e-books and articles about porn addiction, such as “My Husband is Addicted to Porn!” and “Do Women Who Watch Porn Feel More Shame Than Men?” Most of these blog posts include personal stories from pastors, moms, and Covenant Eyes users, reminding readers that they’re not alone in their need to bust a load on a computer keyboard.
Via Skype, the company’s community manager, Luke Gilkerson, told me, “Covenant Eyes is against pornography.” The company believes pornography damages the mind, making people unproductive and changing the way people see and treat women. Luke said most users fit into one of two groups: parents who are looking for something more than just a filter, and adult men who have “felt a strong temptation to look at pornography” and didn't like the way porn “consumed their lives.”
A few weeks ago at work, my co-worker mentioned belonging to the first category of Covenant Eyes users. He lives with a super-Christian family (essentially his landlords) that use Covenant Eyes to prevent him from viewing “unholy” web content. As part of their living agreement, he’s forced to connect Covenant Eyes to his phone and laptop. The app then sends the family patriarch weekly reports detailing all the sites my coworker has visited. Although my co-worker has found a few ways to get around the app, he's still confined within its limits.
I was unsure what qualified as unholy web content (other than, you know, porn), so I decided to try Covenant Eyes.
Covenant Eyes offers three payment options. (What, did you think being pure came for free?) A simple website Filtering package costs $4.99 per month and allows the administrator to block certain websites; for $8.99 per month, the Accountability package monitors a user’s internet activity, rates the websites they go on, and then sends a report back to the administrator. (The report is optional, but is the main point of this payment option.) If you’re feeling really anxious about a Christian’s internet activity, you can buy Filtering and Accountability together for $10.49 per month. As a bonus, the final package also allows you to restrict the amount of time a user can spend online. You can install the packages on most computers and smartphones, but the Filtering option isn't available on Android devices.
Eager to see how sacrilegious Covenant Eyes rated my internet activity, my girlfriend Erica and I signed up for the Accountability and Filtering option.
I downloaded the app on my phone and computer. (I made my username “sassy,” because “badgurlsinner” seemed like a dead giveaway. )The set-up was relatively easy. It asked me who I wanted to receive my online activity reports. I made Erica my accountability partner.
Afterwards, the app gave me the option to change the “sensitivity level” of the reports it would send Erica. I chose Youth.
Next, I set up the app on my iPhone. Once again, I downloaded the app and logged in. For the app to stalk me, I had to use the app as my browser—it only records which websites you go on with Covenant Eyes, meaning the report wouldn't include sites I viewed on my phone’s web browser.
After I finished installing the app on my phone and computer, I restarted my computer, and Covenant Eyes prompted me to log in. Covenant Eyes had become the only administrator on the computer, and if I didn't log in, I couldn't access the internet until I uninstalled the software.
The app blocked porn, so I went on Facebook, because I am boring, but it was also blocked. I went to click on a link to Lights's blog so I could look at her pregnancy photos, but once again, the app had blocked the site I wanted to visit.
I changed my sensitivity levels to Teen. Suddenly, I could no longer view my Amazon Wish List. I went on the Covenant Eyes Twitter account and clicked on a link called “How I Shut Down Two Porn Shops.” Covenant Eyes blocked that too. It also blocked VICE, but I expected that.
Since I made my own account, I was unable to access my online reports whenever I wanted and had to wait till Covenant Eyes sent it to me. When I checked the report, it showed me what times I was most active online (6 and 7 PM), my most visited websites, each site’s rating and description, and the date and time I accessed certain sites. Because I set my sensitivity level so low, Covenant Eyes blocked nearly every site I tried to visit, but I don’t think any of these sites could actually cause any teenage boys harm.
Yeah, I have vibrators on my Amazon Wish List, but kids are going to discover vibrators eventually, and the software also blocked Google, Facebook, and Tumblr. In other words, Covenant Eyes considered most of the internet unholy. The company's employees and users seem to have good intentions—they're trying to protect children—but porn and social media are probably less dangerous than what most kids encounter at school. Software can prevent Christians from seeing unholy web content, but it can’t stop them from encountering the realities of life.