Anyone who’s ever been a child growing up on a planet called Earth has probably had a parent nosily looking over their shoulder at some point in their lives. That’s become even easier to do in the digital age.
So it’s no surprise to discover that, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF), that, yes, apps that surveil teens are proving a popular parental surrogate. But worse, they’re likely driving a toxic wedge between parents and their children and could backfire horrifically.
Surveying 215 pairs of parents and teens between the ages of 13 and 17, the researchers found that around half of the parents admitted to using monitoring apps on their kids’ smartphones.
Apps which are used to track teens’ location and phone usage; block the use of other apps; and even limit time spent on their smartphone, may actually end up being counterproductive, the team found. Teens being surveilled were actually more likely to be exposed to explicit content and online harassment and bullying than those who weren’t.
“Our findings suggest that most parental-control apps are just that – apps that attempt to control what teens can do online, but ultimately do little to keep them safe online,” said Pamela Wisniewski, assistant professor of engineering and computer science at UCF.
In fact, the researchers also found that parents who used these apps were stricter and more authoritarian, which could ultimately end up pushing them away.
The researchers then looked at 736 reviews of 37 parental-control apps on the Google Play Store and discovered a huge wharf between the reviews of parents and the reviews of kids (aged eight to 19). 79% of the reviews left by children and teens had given the apps a rating of two-stars or lower, while the parents’ reviews were generally positive.
Take a look at the reviews for an app called Screen Time Parental Control, for example, and the parents seem pretty authoritarian. One reads: “My son hates me for using this. Brilliant – just four days into using the trial and he has been caught out twice.”
While a review for another app called SecureTeen Parental Control reads: “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?”
So what can parents do? Besides digitally monitoring their kids, Alicia Blum-Ross, co-author of LSE’s Parenting for a Digital Future project, suggests that parents instead have an open and frank discussion with their children to avoid burning bridges.
“If parents create rules around digital technology that they don’t consult their children about or take into account their children’s desires, that can be very isolating for children to feel like they’re not being heard in family conversations.”
So while parenting apps seem like an easy solution, helping parents keep an eye on their teens and restricting their phone usage, it’s probably not going to help the parent-teen relationship. Especially at a time when they’re learning to be autonomous.
The two studies, which have yet to be published, are to be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems held later this month.