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Parental-Control Apps To Keep Teens Safe Can Backfire

The Internet can be a dark and scary place, which is why many parents turn to parental control apps to keep children safe online. But that protective effort may backfire, preventing kids from developing the skills needed to identify and deal with online threats, two recent studies from University of Central Florida found.

Using parental control apps for kids may also harm the bond of trust between parent and child, researchers added.

The researchers in both studies examined the common apps parents use to set parental controls on their teens’ smartphones. The teams tested whether the apps actually helped in keeping teens safe online, and surveyed 215 parent-teen pairs on their attitudes to online safety.

They found that parents with an authoritarian parenting style, who are less respectful of their teen’s need for autonomy, tended to use parental control apps the most. Perhaps surprisingly, teens in these situations experienced more online risks, including unwanted explicit content, sexual solicitations and harassment.

While both parental involvement and supervision do result in less online victimization of teens, neither of these factors seem to correlate to the use of parental control apps, said researcher Arup Kumar Ghosh.

“Our research is challenging the current solutions for protecting teens online by tightening the reins,” said study advisor Pamela Wisniewski, an expert on adolescent online safety.

Most parental control apps live up to their name: They attempt to control and monitor what kids can do online, but provide no actual safety from the dangers of the Internet. The apps disregard teens’ developmental need for increased autonomy, and undermine kids’ opportunities to learn how to manage risks, take good decisions, and build coping skills on their own, Wisniewski said.

The second study concentrated on finding out how kids felt about being monitored by safety apps. They took into account 736 online reviews posted publicly by teens and younger children on safety apps downloaded on Google Play, finding 79% teen reviews rated the apps at 2/5 stars. Most of the teens’ negative reviews followed three themes: They found the app to be too restrictive, they felt the app invaded their privacy, or they thought the app supported ‘lazy’ and bad parenting and weakened supportive communication with their parents. Overall, the study found teens felt that the parental control apps limited them from doing important daily tasks like homework and research, and encouraged stalker-like behavior in their parents.

But there’s no denying the Internet can be as dangerous as the real world. So how can parents keep kids safe online?

“Instead, we suggest empowering teens to be agents of their own online safety,” Wisniewski said.

“Teens, and even younger children, told us loudly and clearly that they would rather their parents talk to them than use parental control apps,” Ghosh added. “Not because they wanted to get away with something bad, but because they wanted their parents’ trust and respect.”

It’s an online safety strategy that has come to be defined as ‘digital citizenship‘ — the idea that kids must be taught to navigate the virtual world responsibly and safely, just as they must be taught to navigate the real world. And while it’s certainly more effort than installing an app, in the end, it’s more empowering — and safer.

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