So-called parental control apps on smartphones might suck at actually protecting kids from iffy stuff on the internet, new preliminary research from the University of Central Florida suggests. And unsurprisingly, they also seem to drive a wedge between teens and parents.
Researchers first surveyed over 200 pairs of parents and teens (ages 13 to 17) online. About half of the parents said they at least sometimes used these apps, which can block certain websites, limit screen time, and track children’s online activity. They found that parents who relied on these apps were more likely to be stricter and authoritarian, meaning they’re often demanding and rarely willing to listen to their kids or meet them halfway. But, seemingly counterintuitively, the teens whose parents reported having these apps were also more likely to report being exposed to unwanted explicit content, online harassment, and problems with other kids.
“The takeaway here is that parents should not treat parental control apps as a magic bullet to keep their teens safe online,” senior author Pamela Wisniewski, an assistant professor of engineering and computer science at UCF, told Gizmodo via email.
Building on their initial findings, the researchers then looked at 736 online reviews left by parents and kids (ages 8 to 19) of 37 parental control apps available on Google Play. The parents were generally rosy about the apps, but two-thirds of the kids gave them one star reviews, and they often confessed the apps negatively impacted their relationship with their parents.
“This app will cause trust issues with your kids. Ever since my dad installed this app, he and I have grown farther apart. If he doesn’t trust me enough to use my phone, then why should I trust him?” read a one-star review of the SecureTeen Parental Control app in 2015.
Both studies, which haven’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, are set to be presented later this month at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems held in Montreal (CHI), Canada. The research was peer reviewed prior to its acceptance into the conference, though, and within the field of human-computer interaction, those sorts of findings tend to be highly regarded.
One drawback of the studies, however, is that they can’t tell us exactly why these apps are linked to more online risks.
“It is possible that teens who are experiencing online risks have parents who are more likely to use parental control apps. However, based on the parent reports and our own prior research, parents are often unaware of the online risks their teens are experiencing and this did not statically explain why they chose to use parental control apps,” Wisniewski said. “Another possible explanation is that teens are not getting the support they need from their parents to help them navigate both offline peer problems and online risk experiences. The use of parental control apps, as opposed to more engaged parenting styles, might be symptomatic of this lack of engaged parental involvement.”
Rather than turning to automated safety nets, the authors say, parents should become more involved in their kids’ lives, which includes both directly supervising what they’re seeing on the internet and having open conversations about the dangers of online activities. At the same time, they should also trust their children’s own judgement in managing these risks. Other research by Wisniewski has found that kids tend to recover pretty quickly from the occasional internet troll or act of cyberbullying.
As a compromise, future monitoring apps could include design suggestions from actual kids. And in the meantime, Wisniewski says, if parents insist on using these apps, they should seek out those that keep parents actively in the loop and teach teens how to stay safe themselves.
“If they use the apps as a tool to supplement positive parenting practices, not to take the place of them, then these apps could be beneficial,” she said. “However, they should not be used as a ‘set it and forget it’ solution because they are imperfect and cannot replace talking with our children and teaching them how to engage with others online meaningfully and safely.”
A 2016 Pew report estimated that about 16 percent of parents use these apps regularly to monitor their teens.