14/11/2017 08:21 GMT | Updated 14/11/2017 08:21 GMT

Parental Controls Are Harmful And Ineffective - Why Are We Still Using Them?


The perils of the parental panopticon

Edward Snowden once said, 'arguing that you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.'

No matter how I feel about Snowden, we share views on privacy. It's like this. When I'm travelling, I sing in the shower - usually something cheesy like The Eagles. Sometimes I'll do it at home, but that usually means my 14-year-old daughter - and sometimes my wife - ribs me about it. It's a bit of fun, but the truth is, we all act differently when we know someone's watching.

We have a fundamental right to privacy. It's right there in article seven of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

As a parent, I can empathise with the urge to protect children online. I've seen horrific examples of sextortion, cyberbullying and radicalisation. We can't let children fall victim to this; the online universe can also be a great way to keep in touch with friends, find things out and have fun, but it is also filled with many terrible things.

Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction of many adults is to snoop, spy and deprive children of their privacy online. It's a well-meaning concern, but one that has led us to adopt online 'parental controls' software tools, which are neither effective nor benign. We need a balance.

We are all just prisoners here of our own device

According to Ofcom, 62% of children between 5 and 15 have a mobile phone. Only 39% of parents use some form of parental controls - and even assuming that there are some parents who are more laissez faire, my experience as a dad is that parents may sign up for these apps, then just give up.

It's tough enough being a parent; the last thing you want is to add another 'management burden' to your plate by having to configure and monitor a parental controls app. It's also unfair to set a static list - what you allow a five and a fifteen-year-old to do online are very different.

A lot of these solutions depend on website blocking, but in a review of 30 parental control apps, only three achieved a perfect score for blocking harmful content. And this doesn't protect against cyberbullying and harmful communications over channels like WhatsApp.

Many apps only work through your home router - and children often take a perverse glee in learning how to disable these solutions. The top three YouTube videos for disabling parental controls software have 48,000 views between them, and all three have been created by young YouTubers.

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

If that's not enough, let's talk about harm. The psychological impact of surveillance is well documented. In humans, being watched increases anxiety, and people with anxiety are 59% more likely to have heart attacks and 31% more likely to die from one. Chronic anxiety has been strongly linked to cancer.

There aren't many experiments of this kind on children, but one - often cited as a positive example - concerns whether children faced with a mirror would disobey an instruction to take a single sweet during a 'trick or treat' exercise. It concluded that if children could observe themselves, they were likely to be better behaved.

We all want our children to be well-behaved, but learning the boundaries of acceptable behaviour is part and parcel of being young. Today's world needs strong, flexible adults who can think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions, not perfect little clones. That means overstepping the mark sometimes - and if we shelter our children, they'll have problems later when they can't navigate adult life.

This could be heaven or this could be hell...

There is a limit to this. No child should be bullied, groomed or sextorted. We should make them think twice about sending nasty messages and prevent them from sending sexts.

But wouldn't it be great if children could roam free online, knowing that they're safe from the dreadful stuff? That's what we do offline by being a parent, a teacher, and with that squishy flooring in playgrounds that you can fall over on. This is where we should be deploying artificial intelligence, keeping kids safe and protecting their privacy. That would mean no old-fashioned, outdated measures like parental controls, spying on children, causing stress and which - if we're really honest - don't really work anyway.

This isn't going to stop kids being kids. They'll get into trouble. They'll laugh, they'll cry, they'll sulk. They'll always be rewarding, delightful, hilarious and a huge pain in the arse.

But they'll be safe.