Many parents faced with busy daily lives today look to technology to keep their children safe online. There are a mixture of reasons why they choose to do this. Some will think this is all that is needed, others will use it to support their own efforts and conversations. It is perfectly understandable to turn to technology to provide “solutions” to ensure our children are using technology safely and in a risk free manner.
While there are many positives of young people using tech, we are flooded with concerns too – too much screen time, inappropriate content, cyberbullying, sexting, pornography, grooming and meeting up with strangers. Wouldn’t it be good if we could put something on their phone or tablet that would make sure none of this could happen!?
There's an app for that
As such there seems to be a growing market for apps that address these concerns and can provide parents with a raft of “solutions” to keep their children safe online.For example, there has been much discussion in the news recently about data protection and the issues around privacy of personal data. Indeed many of the current ‘child safety’ apps will point out the responsibility around keeping our children’s personal data secure.
Apps offer much functionality beyond keeping children’s data safe:
- Are you worried about your child spending too much time online? Our app will shut down their device at preset times!
- Are you worried about your child being cyberbullied? Our app will send you every single message your child sends to other people so you can see who they are talking to and what they are talking about!
- Are you worried your child is going out and meeting strangers they have met online? Our app will allow you to see where they are the whole time!
As people who have worked in this online safety field for more years than we care to remember, we have seen a lot of technical “solutions” come and go. However there has been such a flurry of new apps and parental control solutions emerging recently we feel it is worth taking a step back and reflecting on whether we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.
We all want to make sure our children are safe and not exposed to unnecessary danger, but they also need to grow up resilient and emotionally competent to deal with what life throws at them. By trying to ensure they cannot access any “upsetting” content, do not get turned into “digital zombies”, have no-one saying anything offensive to them, and making sure they not approached by strangers, we also risk seriously impacting on their rights.
Children have a right to privacy, to freely express themselves, to access information and content that is useful to them and to have a private/personal life, particularly as they develop into young adults. An app that delivers parents all of the messages their child sends, might provide some reassurances they aren’t being bullied, but equally isn’t it an invasion of their privacy to be spying on their communications?
Just because it is technically possible does it make it socially ok? While we might then be able to view one communication channel in their lives, there are always others. How about the conversations they might have during the school day? How far might we go with technology? It is technically possible to attach a camera to a child and play back their school day when they come home in the afternoon. But is it a viable approach to tackling in-school bullying?
We should also ask ourselves why these private companies develop these apps. It’s probably not down to altruism as much as it is a way of making money from preying on our fears and desire to protect our children.
It is ironic that many of the same apps ask for access to a lot of data that will often not be of relevance to their service. So what’s in it for them? Selling and moving data is part of internet business carried out by small and large companies alike. When we give away our data to apps we become the commodity the company receives in the form of sellable information. When selecting a well-known parental control browser, which primarily blocks porn or other dangerous material sites, we explored the terms and conditions. It asks for permission to access users’:
- Wifi connection information and
- allows in app purchases
That's a lot of information for a simple block ‘app’, and that's not uncommon, as this video about data privacy highlights.
Many of us are aware and accept that companies share our data, but should our attitude towards our children be the same? What are the real risks our children face amidst this data tsunami and always connected culture?
In real life the threats young people face are myriad and complicated. Some are more impactful than others and many of our children build their own resilience and deal with today’s issues as we did with ours. Although safety technology through apps and other technology may be a useful approach when children are younger, they are likely to become more and more ineffective. Especially as they become older, more peer-influenced, and are able to access the internet via multiple devices in more and more places away from direct adult supervision.
Talk about it
Child safety apps are not the solution to keeping your children safe online. There is absolutely nothing that can replace honest conversation. Educating and talking to your children about the online world with common sense advice and discussion about what is going on is irreplaceable. Parents do not need to know every platform or new Snapchat or Facebook app or filter that has arrived on the market. What this is and always will be about is behaviour.
Inculcating your children with knowledge of how the world works (and it is no different from the offline world) is massively important in helping them make online decisions at crucial points. Companies using data and the hidden analytics behind this should be part of the education that children receive. Enabling them to make fact based decisions on who shares their data and when is a good start, but we also need to understand that technology does not solve social problems.
Cyberbullying, sexting, grooming and access to “inappropriate” content are all things that are enabled through technology but have their roots in social issues. Having our children know we are there for them, and that we understand there are risks we can work at mitigating together, are far more powerful than telling them we are removing their privacy because we want to keep them safe.