Saul Rosenthal, PhD

Boston Area Health Psychologist

One of the issues that almost always comes up when parents find out I specialize in Internet addiction is whether parental controls and monitoring apps work. I’ve come to realize that what many parents are really saying to me is, “I don’t know how to make sure my child only accesses safe Internet material and I’m pretty sure my kid will get around any control I set up anyway but I don’t know what else to do. Help!” 

Even though I’m a developmental and clinical psychologist specializing in technology use, I realized I don’t really know if parental controls work. I use them for my own child, but I hadn’t given it much thought. I just turned on what I thought was appropriate in the operating system. 

In fact, even though parental controls are ubiquitous — built into operating systems, provided by Internet service providers and developed by a number of third parties — there’s very little in the way of information out there about whether they work or not.

And then I realized the question was more complicated than I thought. What does it even mean to say parental controls “work?” That a child cannot access the Internet at all, at least during particular times? That the child only encounters material the parent deems appropriate? 

To me, the question of effectiveness misses the point, at least in terms of the type of thoughtful parenting which I promote and to which I aspire.

The first question should not be, “Do controls work?” Rather, it should be, “What do I want to accomplish as a parent in regards to my child’s access to the Internet?” A more difficult question, at least if taken seriously.

We all want our children to be safe, online and off. That’s easy. But how can we keep them safe in a way that remains consistent with our values? Answers to questions like that are rarely found on the Internet, where opinions tend to be absolutistic. Typical online opinions are that we as parents must 1: Exercise Complete Control Over Our Children’s Every Digital Movement Or They Will Be Murdered/Bullied/Assaulted/Brainwashed or 2: Keep Out Of Our Children’s Digital Business Because We Shouldn’t Invade Their Privacy And They Will Be Fine.

While those options make good copy (or perhaps “click-bait”), they aren’t realistic. It is impossible to completely protect our children from negative experiences. Some amount of risk exists on the Internet or crossing the street. Keeping children locked up doesn’t make sense. Neither does letting the door sit wide open.

I tell my clients that I am more invested in how they make decisions than in what they decide to do. In that spirit, I won’t argue for one position over another when it comes to Internet restrictions and monitoring. Rather, I think it makes sense to spend time thinking about what you want to accomplish and why.

Coincidently, an article just came out focused on Internet monitoring apps. The author Kirsten Weir primarily discusses apps that allow parents to “spy” on their children’s Internet activities. Weir draws on a variety of developmental and technology professionals to support her argument that parents should not monitor children’s activity. While her bias is fairly obvious, Weir does make the valid point that parental monitoring, at least for adolescents and young adults, can be akin to invading privacy. Healthy development requires a certain amount of psychological space for growth and experimentation. Spying on children, Weir argues, doesn’t allow adolescents the space they need.

While it is beyond the scope of any blog entry to detail developmental needs, I believe Weir’s conclusion is valid, with some caveats. First, Weir assumes that most parents monitor their children’s activity without telling them. While that may or may not be true, I agree with Weir’s conclusion that such practice is potentially harmful to the trust necessary for healthy development. 

However, I think that monitoring and managing access has potential developmental benefits. You can’t support your child’s healthy and safe growth if you have no idea what they’re up to. If parents want to monitor their children’s activity I advise them to do so in an open and upfront manner. Make it part of helping your child to grow into a responsible online citizen. 

It may be developmentally useful to engage in behaviors parents might not like (you shouldn’t know everything your child is up to). At the same time, parental structures are necessary to help direct that development. There is a lot of room for good parental involvement between total control of access and carte blanche access.

Another issue I have with Weir’s article is that while she mostly focuses on adolescents, her conclusions are for parenting in general. A one-size-fits all approach is not developmentally appropriate. Imagine your child going to a friend’s house on their own. You probably wouldn’t let your four-year-old go at all. Maybe you’d let your 10-year-old, but you’d probably call the friend’s parents to make sure they made it. On the other hand, you might not even check in with a 17-year-old. Your oversight needs to match the developmental level of your child.

Learning to use the Internet responsibly is not a series of discreet events performed in a vacuum. Rather it is a continuum based on the developmental ability of your child. You allow them more autonomy (and less oversight) as they show you their increasing capabilities.

Start early. When your child is first getting on the Internet, get on with them. Explain the importance of privacy, asking you permission before clicking on links and letting you know if they see something they don’t understand. Explain to them your rules and that you will enforce those rules in part by having access to their accounts. Over time, you can allow them more independence, but remind them about the rules and that you still have the right to access (which, by the way, you legally do).

Yes, there will be pushback. Just like there is with everything else. Give some thought to what you want your children’s Internet experience to be and why. If your digital parenting is an expression of your values, you’ll be able to make the best decisions for your family.

Oh, and I guess I’d better go back and review the controls I’ve set up for my own child…

April 25th, 2016

Posted In: Parenting, Tech