Parental control apps are valuable tools that can help keep your child out of trouble online. But installing them can put the trust involved in a parent/child relationship at risk. In this article, co-written by one of our older and one of our younger editors, a fictional father discusses the interpersonal aspects of parental control apps with his simulated son.
Dad: Gabe, I'd like to talk to you. Please put your phone down. Thank you.
You know that your mother and I have been concerned recently about how much you use your phone and your laptop. We want you to have those things, but we also want you to use them responsibly. And of course we also want to keep you safe, both in what in the old days we called "the real world" and in the online world.
So we've installed parental control apps on your devices. You'll notice some changes in what websites you can use, in what apps you can install, and maybe even who you can get phone calls and texts from. And there will also be some limits on the time you spend on your devices.
Parental Control Software is Configurable
Son: Really!? Wow, Dad. Should I start calling you Big Brother now, or is "helicopter dad" enough? How is it okay for you to have access to every little thing on my phone?
I'm not some 10-year old anymore who needs his parents hovering over him and controlling every aspect of his life. Seriously, telling me what I can and can't see while having eyes on me everywhere I go isn't going to help you or mom in any way.
Next thing I know, you'll be putting a chip in my brain to track everything I think too….
Dad: Yeah, we were going to go with the brain chip, but our health insurance wouldn't cover the surgery.
Son: Oh, ha ha ha, very funny dad. That was a joke, right?
Dad: Come on, Gabe, don't be so melodramatic. This is not about controlling every bit of your life. Hard as it might be to accept, your phone is not your life.
And look, I understand that as you get older, you won't need the same rules and restrictions as you do now. But you're 15 and it's still Mom's and my job to keep you safe and keep you focused on stuff that's important.
Does Parental Control Software Undermine Parent/Child Trust?
Son: Not about controlling my life? Really? What is it about, then? Because what it sounds like is that you don't trust me enough. Why would you need to monitor everything I do if you really trusted me? I honestly don't know where this is coming from; it's not like I'm using my computer or my phone to look for bad stuff. You and mom have been clear enough about what to avoid and who to watch out for. Here, check yourself
*hands over phone*
Dad: Mom and I have always believed that "trust, but verify" is a good principle to follow in nuclear arms treaties, payroll deductions, and parenting. It's not that we don't trust you; it's that we don't trust a lot of the other people out there that having a smartphone gives you access to.
I know you think you can take care of yourself. But I also know you haven't had the same experience with the world as we've had. So this is an area where, at least for now, we're going to trust, but verify. We both know that Snapchat pix disappear, that browser histories can be edited, that whole files can be hidden.
So thanks for the offer, but I'm not going to search through your phone now. Instead, we're going with the monitoring app.
*hands back phone*
Does Parental Control Software Interfere with Schoolwork?
Son: But what if I need to look up something important and your app doesn't let me? Say I have a project for school and need to search for things that your controls think are dangerous. Am I supposed to just go to my teacher and say, "Oh, I'm sorry Miss Graham, my parents thought this kind of content was inappropriate so they blocked it and I couldn't do anything"?
You'd think whatever program is monitoring me would know what's really dangerous, but who knows, maybe it's not smart enough and blocks anything remotely similar to what you'd actually want to filter.
Dad: Well, if you ever have to do research for a report about some politician's involvement with porn stars, let us know and we'll disable the app for a few hours. No problem.
Son: Ugh, dad, you just don't get it.
Dad: Seriously, if you come across something else that the app won't let you see that's important for school–or is just important to you personally–we can disable the app. And if the app’s too restrictive or can't distinguish between porn and a recipe for chicken breasts, we can always get rid of it. It's not like we're locked into this forever.
How Does Parental Control Software Affect Online Bullying?
Son: Alright, alright, so my life isn't completely over because you put a few controls on my phone. But think about how embarrassing this is! What if I go to school and my friends ask me to look for something that's blocked? Or if they want to invite me somewhere and I can't even see the notification because your schedule locks me out of Facebook? They're all going to laugh at me, Dad!
Phones are a part of our everyday life now. Isn't this control app thing supposed to filter cyberbullying too? All it's going to do is put a bigger target on my head! They'll start calling me all sorts of names, I'm sure.
Dad: Hmm. You know, I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, my first reaction is to say that if your friends are laughing at you because your parents care enough about you to keep you safe, maybe you need some new friends.
But I understand something about the realities of middle school. I remember being taunted when I was in school about things I either wasn’t allowed to do or didn’t feel comfortable doing. It can be hard to resist peer pressure, especially when you’re being teased mercilessly and just want to do something–anything!–to make it stop. But learning to stand up to peer pressure is part of what this is all about.
I don’t have an easy explanation for how to do that, except to say that in the long run you’ll be more respected and popular for doing what’s right than doing whatever your peers want you to do.
Does Parental Control Software Interfere with Children’s Curiosity and Development?
Son: *sigh* Okay dad. You’re right. I might be overreacting. If they’re really my friends, they’ll stand by me regardless of what I can or can’t do.
But still, I can’t help thinking that you’re holding me back by limiting the things I can see and access. How am I supposed to learn what I should and should not mess with if I never get the chance to do so in the first place? How will I grow to be a responsible adult? I get that you and mom want what’s best for me, but if you don’t let me make my own mistakes, I might end up worse in the end.
Dad: Um… wow. I mean, yes, we understand that it’s good for you to have the freedom to explore. And even to make mistakes. And maybe Mom and I have been overreacting too.
How about this: when it comes time for us to set up the parental controls, let’s sit down and do it together. You can help us choose the types of things that will be blocked. There are probably some we can agree on and others that we can at least discuss. We’re not trying to clip your wings.
Obviously, Fictitious Father and Simulated Son are having a very rational discussion about parental control software. In real life, such discussions may be a lot more contentious. But one of the takeaways from the dialogue above is that parental controls will be most effective if they’re implemented jointly by parents and children. That may not be possible or desirable in every parent/child relationship. The other point is that children grow and change and that parental controls that may be perfectly appropriate for a ten year old may be inappropriate for older children.
The text of Simulated Son was written by Gabriel Rodriguez, who in real life juggles the demands of being an adult and the tribulations of still answering to his parents. The text of Fictitious Father was written by Jim Trumm, who in real life is a veteran of many awkward conversations with his own nonfictitious twin sons.