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  • Márcia Fervienza

The Dangers of Parental Control Apps When Raising Teens

I am the mother of 3 beautiful children and, as most of my followers know, my first born was not a walk in the park. She is independent and always had a (sometimes) dangerous curiosity about life. She wanted to explore everything since she was a child, regardless of parental advice. So, when it came to keeping her safe, I'd come up with a rule, and she'd think of a way to bend it. Immediately.

But as a parent, my job was to keep trying. So, I insisted. I did everything that the parenting books tell you to do. I exercised strict supervision, I talked, I monitored, I grounded her, and I prayed that she would turn 18 in one piece. And she got there. Today she is 22, beautiful and healthy. She's still independent and has a defiant personality, but now we don't have problems because she's a responsible adult.

Back then we didn't have the monitoring apps that we have today for teens. So, I didn't have that resource, which I would've surely used if we did. But I can assure you that she'd have found a way to work around it as well. And I wonder if that isn't the nature of all teens. They are at that age when they think they know enough to make their own decisions, which isn't true. But the more we tell them (with words or behavior) that they aren't ready yet, the more they want to prove us wrong. Since they don't understand that the best way to win autonomy is by showing responsibility, they just become very good at lying, deceiving and working around our rules to get things done their way.

Now parents have these apps, which they can install in the teens' cellphones to monitor their activity. The goal is to ensure that they aren't engaging in dangerous activity, and (if they are) to intervene before it's too late. But how effective are they in protecting our teens? From personal experience, I can say that it wouldn't have helped me much with my "defiant" first born. So, wouldn't an approach of building trust and open channels of communication work better to keep them safe?

Recent research published by the University of Central Florida seems to indicate so. The team found that authoritarian parents tend to be less responsive to their teen's need for autonomy and more prone to use parental control apps. And, against all the odds, the use of these apps is associated with teens experiencing more, not fewer, online risks, including unwanted explicit content, harassment, and online sexual solicitations. On the other hand, parental involvement and direct supervision seem to be associated with better results regarding peer problems and online victimization for teens. But neither of these factors correlated with the use of parental control apps. How come?

Because these apps represent the presence of a parent in the teen's phone, it makes them feel intruded. Besides, they don't learn to protect themselves when it comes to online behavior. The virtual presence of the parents changes their focus from being safe to getting around parental supervision. The apps, therefore, may feel empowering to parents but are disempowering to teens. It makes them more vulnerable to external attacks and less capable of defending themselves when they are in a situation where no type of parental control is possible.

Furthermore, it seems that these apps foster distrust between teens and parents. When the researchers analyzed 736 publicly posted reviews written by teens for parental-control apps on Google Play, they found that approximately 79 percent of the reviews were at either two stars or less out of a possible 5. Mainly, the kids found that the apps were intrusive and supported "lazy" or bad parenting instead of improving communication between them and their parents. Teens said that they'd rather their parents talk to them than use parental control apps, not because they want to get away with something bad, but because they want their parents' trust and respect.

For me, this is a huge eye-opener. Because the truth is that talking, trying to establish a connection, forming a bond and developing trust with our teens is time-consuming. As a working parent with little to no help, sometimes it's simpler just to impose monitoring and control. But is that effective in accomplishing my goals? The more I read the news about the rate of cyberbullying and teen suicide, I worry, and I want to take action immediately. However, maybe this isn't the most effective or appropriate action when thinking of long-term results.

The good thing is that I have two other kids, ages 14 and 3, with whom I'll have the chance to try new tactics. My goal is to keep them protected while empowering them to protect themselves. With my 14-year-old, for example, I go through the open communication, presence, and connection route. It's worked so far. She's a good student who chooses her friends wisely, and haven't given me big teen problems so far. Of course, she has a different personality, and each child is different, so maybe that helps too.

But trust should be the basis of any relationship, especially with our kids. How can we expect them to trust us if we don't trust them? Trust is something that should be earned by both sides. But how can we build anything when we start from a place of cynicism? The kids need the motivation to respect the rules, and I think that protecting a healthy and honest relationship with the parents is a great one. Preserving our trust and their right to privacy are two more. So that should be the starting point.

The problem of trust is more complex though. Teens are at a stage in their lives when they aren't good at self-regulating, and they want to try everything. Unfortunately, we can't control everything they do. No matter how much we try, the truth is that we can't. Thus, we need them to trust us when we tell them not to do something because it is dangerous, wrong or inappropriate. And that is accomplished through honesty, vulnerability and consistent behavior.

Back to my own experience, with my 14-year-old the rules are: I won't be going over your things in your room, your phone, your bags or your computer. But, as the mom, I am entitled to do it anytime. This way, she knows that my authority overrules her right to privacy. In other words, her right to privacy is conditional on her showing me that she is worthy of my trust. If I ever find something that shouldn't be there, that will be proof that she needs closer monitoring. And, as such, both her privacy and autonomy will be curtailed. It's been working so far. But not necessarily there is a one-size-fits-all solution.


Source of research: University of Central Florida. (2018, April 3). Apps to keep children safe online may be counterproductive. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 4, 2018 from

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