Parents are constantly looking for ways to keep their family safe. Nowadays, it's just as important to protect their virtual lives as it is their real lives.
With children increasingly using the Internet, the threat of them accessing harmful content is becoming more severe. Naturally, parents are anxious to ensure that their children stay safe online. However, it does raise the complex issue of balancing the need to protect children with their right to privacy. Where do we draw the line between security and the younger generation's right to a private life? And, at what point do parental control tools stop being a shield against online dangers and become a means of surveillance?
How can we strike a balance?
Real vs. virtual
The impact of parental control tools on a child depends on how they are used. They are designed to protect children from the dangers of the digital world and help parents instill in them a responsible attitude with regards to what they are doing online. They allow parents to be sure that their children are not doing or seeing something online that could harm them. This is similar to the real world, where a child isn't left to face things on their own without first being taught how to stay safe.
I think the real world offers a good analogy. At first, a child goes for a walk accompanied by adults who, for example, take them to the playground in a pushchair or hold their hand. Then later, they may go there on their own, with an adult supervising from a distance. For example, watching them play in the street from the kitchen window. A few years later, the same child travels on public transport to a sports club, the cinema or to visit friends. Generally, it's a smooth transition from direct control over a child's life to one when parental control gradually eases, but where a parent is on-hand to offer advice and guidance when needed. Children aged two to three are already using their parents' devices to play games and watch videos on YouTube; and by the age of four, many are beginning to explore the Internet on their own. If an adult isn't there to mentor their child and specialist software isn't installed to provide a safe framework for them to explore the online world, a child could end up being exposed to content that is not appropriate for someone of their age.
The importance of protecting children remains as they get older, although the nature of the risk changes over time. As they become more independent in exploring the Internet, they might become an object of sexual exploitation (grooming), or suffer abuse from other children (cyber-bullying).
So what are the common pitfalls for parents to be aware of and how can we strike a balance between our child's privacy and security?
1. Thinking that the digital world is safer than the real world
Many threats in the virtual world replicate those of the real world: in both, a child may see inappropriate things, suffer psychological trauma or meet dangerous people. Online dangers sometimes migrate to the offline world: for example, insults from other children on social media can continue at school, or a child might agree to meet a virtual contact in person. Other things can also have a negative effect on the mood and well-being of a child. For instance, a favorite game being stolen by a hacker or homework being damaged by computer malware as a result of a hardware failure are very real problems for a child. Therefore, it would be unwise to imagine that the digital world is free from potential harm.
2. Leaving it too late to install parental control
The ease with which children learn to use digital devices can lead us into a false sense of security. However, just because a child can use technology doesn't mean they understand the potential dangers of the online world. Indeed, their technical expertise can put them at greater risk because they are able to do more things on their own. The earlier parental control software is installed, the better. However, it's also vital to establish a dialogue with children from a young age: explaining the potential dangers (as appropriate for their age) and encouraging them to talk about anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. If the use of parental control software is built on this foundation, it is more likely a child will understand that the software is there as a demonstration of parental care, rather than a restriction of their freedom. This should ensure that, as they get older, they share their experiences, avoiding the need for parents to spy on every aspect of the child's life.
3. Forbidding everything
Parental controls offer a range of features, from blocking inappropriate content at one end of the scale, to tracking children's movements at the other. When installing parental control software on a child's device, some parents apply maximum restrictions, to ensure their child's safety. However, the more sophisticated programs let you tailor the level of protection according to the age of the child, so that parents can gradually decrease the level of freedom a child has - just as we tend to do in the real world - rather than giving them full access to the virtual world all at once. The settings applied should reflect the child's age and development and restrict and control those things that pose a danger at that particular age. Parents need to decide where, on this scale, they feel comfortable. However, whatever parental control functions they choose to apply, it should be done as part of an ongoing dialogue with their children.
The traditional order of things
Let's draw yet another parallel with real life. In an attempt to have their own private space, a child closes their bedroom door and hangs a 'Do not enter!' sign on it. However, because the room is in the family home, the adults have the right to ask for the door not to be locked. Besides, most parents would enter anyway, if only to clean it. Even if the parents don't want to invade their child's privacy, they still know what's in the room, what books their child reads, what music they listen to and what their interests are.
Not knowing what is in their child's "digital room" creates certain risks and destroys the bond between parents and children. Mum and dad don't see what their child is interested in, which means the family members know and understand each other less. Parental control gives parents the opportunity to get to know their child better, to find common interests and to gently advise on how best to proceed at important moments in a child's life online.