Parental control apps: ally or adversary?

Chances are, the global pandemic has increased your reliance—and the time you spend—on the internet in myriad ways, from following the latest health news to ordering your groceries online to binge-watching Netflix to pass the time while you’re stuck at home. And if you’re like many parents, you’ve relaxed your previous rules around screen time for your kids. After all, they’re bored. Schools have been shuttered. Playdates have been canceled. Community pools have been closed, just when the summer heat is most likely to get on everyone’s nerves. 

As adults, we’re emotionally equipped to process and manage a wide range of changes in our lives, including spending more time online.  But for children, piling on screen time may have profound effects, from disturbing their sleep to hindering their academic performance. And from a parental perspective, one of the most frightening risks of kids spending more time online is the greater likelihood that they will be exposed to emotionally harmful experiences. From bullying to negative peer pressure to sexually predatory behavior, the risks of our children being online unsupervised are serious and plentiful.

Parents can’t be there every moment, of course. Nor would we necessarily want to be. Unstructured time on the internet can have some positive effects on kids, too. It fosters a sense of independence among children: the internet can help them learn to do things for themselves. It inspires and satisfies each child’s personal sense of curiosity. It allows them to express themselves. So the struggle for parents is to find balance. How can we give our kids all the benefits of living in the electronic age while still keeping them safe? Enter parental control apps—technology’s solution to the problem it created itself. 

The line between caution and over-control

By all accounts, parents have embraced these applications en masse, creating a North American market that surpasses $700 million today and is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 9% over the next decade. That’s a whole lot of watching—and a whole lot of control—going on.  On the surface, parental control applications may sound like the answer to a concerned parent’s prayers. But the dynamics of control in a parent/child relationship are complex and deeply connected to the issue of trust. Parents and children need to feel like they can trust each other. Some child experts are questioning whether parental control apps have the potential to undermine open family communication and unintentionally contribute to greater distance between parents and kids. A recent study published by the journal Frontiers In Psychology found that parents who exercise excessive control over their children’s internet usage may even contribute to internet addiction, particularly in adolescence.

And yet, the dangers facing children online are real. According to some estimates, 20% of bullying behavior occurs online and we have seen the most tragic results. Children may be exposed to violence and exploitive pornography that fosters at best unrealistic expectations and at worst a damaging perspective on sexuality. Sexual predators do use the internet to hunt for victims, though perhaps not as often as many people fear. So how do parents walk the line between caution and over-control?

How do kids feel?

Researchers are studying this very question, in part by asking kids how they feel about parental control apps. Some child experts are advising parental control app designers to involve children in product development so that their products meet the goal of promoting online safety while also taking into account kids’ objections to being monitored.

Parents can take a clue from these studies when considering whether and how to use parental control apps. The best parental control apps incorporate customization features that allow parents to tailor monitoring to best suit their families’ needs. The more flexibility an app offers, the better suited it is for children of various ages, for example. Customization features allow parents to choose how much control they want to exercise, which online media they wish to monitor and how closely, what kind of behavior and communication warrants a parental alert, and more. Some parental control apps provide parents the ability to be very restrictive and invasive. But using these apps to the max can have unwanted consequences, including motivating children to become all the more secretive. 

Communication is key

It’s important for parents not to become over-reliant on parental control apps, too. The most effective way to use these apps is in combination with straightforward, regular communication. Before installing an app, have a detailed discussion with your kids about what the app will and won’t do. For example, you might assure your teenage daughter that you won’t be alerted if she has a spat with her boyfriend, but you might be alerted if she is being bullied or harassed.  While some apps provide parents the option of reading every text message a child sends, doing so can be destructive to your relationship with your kids. Kids need and are entitled to privacy, just like everyone else. 

It’s important for parents not to become over-reliant on parental control apps, too

You can also involve your kids in setting control levels at the outset. Letting kids know what to expect from an app can help limit any anxiety—and there will be anxiety, no matter what—about being monitored. As kids become older and better able to protect themselves, you’ll likely want to relax your controls. Granting kids more independence as they grow is sensible, natural, and constructive. What’s more, it gives them a sense of pride and increases their confidence—two goals that most parents will agree are highly worthy of pursuit.

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Chances are, the global pandemic has increased your reliance—and the time you spend—on the internet in myriad ways, from following the latest health news to ordering your groceries online to binge-watching Netflix to pass the time while you’re stuck at home. And if you’re like many parents, you’ve relaxed your previous rules around screen time for your kids. After all, …


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Notable Replies

  1. Parental control apps can sometimes hamper adolescents in reporting abuse in the household.
    A tool to record evidence and send it off to the police may be useful. Perhaps it could be limited, it could only be used for that one purpose.

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