In response to the threat of online predators, mobile apps have been designed specifically to keep children safe when they're on the Internet.


Parents' concerns about what their children experience online are by no means unfounded. The Crimes Against Children Research Center, a U.S. organisation, reports that 23 percent of youths have been exposed to Internet porn accidentally. 11 percent have been harassed online, and 9 percent have received unwanted sexual solicitations via the Internet.


However, two recent studies from the University of Central Florida have shown that apps designed to keep youngsters safe may actually damage the trust between children and their parents, and also reduce children's ability to respond to online threats.


The studies' researchers examined what types of parents use parental control apps on teens' smartphones, whether the apps actually keep kids safe online, and how teens and younger kids felt about their parents implementing these apps.


In the first study, a survey of 215 teen-parent pairs in the U.S. unsurprisingly found that authoritarian parents, who were less responsive to their teen's need for autonomy, were most likely to utilise parental control apps.



Unfortunately, the use of these apps was actually associated with teens experiencing more online risks, rather than reducing the risk of unwanted explicit content, harassment, or online sexual solicitations.


Arup Kumar Gosh, a doctoral student in UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, commented on this research he conducted as part of his dissertation: 


“Parental involvement and direct supervision were both associated with fewer peer problems and less online victimization for teens, but neither of these factors correlated with the use of parental control apps."


“The fear that teens will fall victim to unthinkable online dangers persists, and our research is challenging the current solutions for protecting teens online by tightening the reins," Pamela Wisniewski, an assistant professor of engineering and computer science and advisor on this study, said of the results.



"Instead, we suggest empowering teens to be agents of their own online safety."


She also said of the partially U.S. National Science Foundation-funded study, “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."


The second study looked at 736 publicly posted reviews of parental control apps written by teens and younger kids. Ghosh, Wisniewski, and their collaborators found that 79 percent of these reviews rated the apps with two stars or less.


The three main themes behind the negative attitudes toward the apps were that the youngsters thought the apps were too restrictive, were an invasion of their privacy, and supported 'lazy' parenting rather than fostering communication channels between kids and parents.


In some cases, the apps kept children from completing everyday tasks, like homework.



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


Wisniewski added, “The more fearful we are as parents the more tightly we tend to hold on.  In some cases, that can mean our children are not learning how to manage risk on their own.” 


The research team suggested that because these teens are overly sheltered, they are not developing the necessary coping skills that will help them later in life.


They said that the best parenting approach may involve giving teens a certain amount of autonomy and empowering them to make appropriate decisions.


What do you think of this study's findings? Do you agree with the researchers' suggestions?