The Problem with Parental Control Applications and the Real Solution


We have all been trained to believe, “there’s an app for that”. Want a ride? Uber. Want a room? AirBnB. Want to limit your child’s web access and track their online behavior? There are dozens of apps for that too.

Parents are doing their best to raise kids in this quickly evolving digital age, and the two most common solutions to the overwhelming amount of tech kids utilize every day are Parental Control Applications and a Parent/Child Smartphone Contract. I have written before about my thoughts on smartphone contracts here. New research suggests that parental control applications suffer a similar problem. The applications are designed for parents to control their children’s use from a distance, often in the form of blocking specific content and monitoring all of the child’s communications. These application controls stand in stark contrast to the type of characteristics and values I am hoping to instill in my children like responsibility for self and respect for privacy.

What Does the Research Say?

Researchers at Penn State University examined 74 popular online security applications available to Android users. The applications were found by searching key terms such as “teen safety”, “online safety” and “cyberbullying”. They found that of those applications identified, a whopping 89% exclusively utilized parental control features to promote safe use of technology for teens. The applications blocked content or delivered reports including all text messages to the parents.

This information allows the parents to make decisions and judgments such as, “Sally is spending three hours on social media; I need to restrict her more,” or “Joe sent a nasty message to his friend; I need to restrict his messaging until he learns.” From a parenting perspective, the applications allow the parent to regulate the teen’s technology use, which makes the parent feel better. However, decades of parenting research suggest this is not the best strategy.

Authoritative Parenting, which combines firm limits with appropriate autonomy-granting and warmth, is consistently associated with just about every desired parenting outcome: strong academic performance, less risky behavior and more stable mental health. The parental control applications are hitting the firm limits piece of authoritative parenting, but seemingly at the expense of autonomy-granting.

The problem with the applications is that they do nothing to promote the teen’s self-regulation. For teen’s to build self-regulation skills, they need two things: (1) self-awareness and (2) strategies for behavior modification. The applications give these two things to their parents, preventing the child from learning about their habits and trying out different solutions.

A Different Solution

While parents may feel a bit better by being able to monitor their teens whereabouts and online activity through their mobile device, this activity only serves to devalue the teen’s independence, responsibility and trusting relationship with their parents. In order to promote safety online and your teen’s budding self-regulation skills, here are a few steps to take.

1.      Do not give your child a super-computer until they are ready.

From our article, The Problem with the Smart-Phone Contract, “If you feel like you need to install software, keep a running document of all their passwords and have a contract to get your kid a smartphone, your kid is not ready for a smartphone. Don’t get them one. That is good parenting. Firm limits.”

The thing about autonomy-granting is that parents who are doing well grant their children appropriate autonomy: not too much and not too little. If you feel uncomfortable with your child having a smart phone because of his maturity level or behaviors he has exhibited, wait. Your job is to decide when your child will be capable of handling a certain responsibility.

2.      Utilize applications that give information to your child.

A small number of monitoring applications give information to the user directly. Applications that allow your child to see their time spent on certain activities build self-awareness. RescueTime is an application which runs in the background of the phone, tolling time spent on various activities which it provides in detailed reports. This kind of application can give information directly to the teen.

The lead author of the PSU study, Pamela Wisniewski, states, “Teens have somehow been overlooked within the design process because these apps clearly violate their privacy and assume the only thing that they can do to protect themselves from online risk is make an SOS call to a trusted adult.”

However, some applications allow children to monitor their own activity, like the ReThink application. It searches the content of messages and posts and flags ones which may be offensive and prompts teens to “ReThink” whether they want to post the message. The application was developed by a 14-year-old girl, who reports some interesting information on how it works here. She cites research that when teens are alerted to their message content, they chose to change the content 93% of the time and investors from SharkTank are helping her take the application to the next level.

3.      Discuss that information and potential strategies with your child.

Have conversations with your child about their online habits and how they want to change them. Encourage your child to think about how they could change their habits to be in line with whatever goals they have for themselves. Share information about how you monitor, evaluate and change your technology use (or any other habit in your life). If you feel your child is not capable of these type of conversations, see point number one.

4.      Have continual conversations about all the benefits and pitfalls of technology.

Parents download applications because they are fearful of the consequences associated with cyberbullying and sexting, among other things. The only real way to protect your kid from these things is through good old-fashioned parenting and regular conversations. To get you started, we have a list of 25 technology conversations you should have with your teen (not all at once, of course). Another recent study out of PSU suggests that children and teens want to talk to their parents about their activity online, but fear parental overreaction.


You can’t outsource parenting. There is no app for that. If technology is the problem, technology is not also the solution. Work with your child’s developing brain and help them build the self-regulation skills they can utilize in adulthood and beyond.

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