Nov 14, 2023
Parents who come to me with that question hope that parental controls— apps, software, filtering services, special routers, or limits set by a parent’s phone—will be the answer to all their problems.
Parents think that with the right filters and features, their children can put down their devices, enjoy family time, and stronger, healthier relationships will follow.
Some even see parental controls as a release from mentoring and teaching.
The reality is that I don’t recommend parental controls. Instead, I recommend parenting.
Yes, I’m being cheeky. But the high-tech alternatives always fail.
The tech industry would love for parents to feel responsible for all family screentime conflicts so they don’t have to be accountable. Technology companies should face some kind of repercussions for the way their design hijacks our kid’s attention to get their attention and keep them hooked (for more on persuasive design, check out this recent post).
Unfortunately, experts, like author Nir Eyal, blame parental failures for why children are addicted to devices. News media perpetuates this message as well, and often nonparents, even well-meaning ones, say, “Just tell your kids no. How hard is that?”
But as parents can attest, it’s virtually impossible.
Parental controls can be one tool in our toolbox. If they work for your family, that’s fine—keep them. However, using parental controls does not exempt us from teaching our children how to be safe online, deal with scary situations or images, and balance tech use intentionally.
Parental controls are imperfect at best, and, ironically, they can even make parenting in the digital age harder.
After talking to many parents and hearing horror stories about parental control workarounds and misfires, I’ve come up with a list of 5 reasons that parental controls aren’t the be-all and end-all we wish them to be:
Children find workarounds. Always. Social media parenting groups are full of examples of parents who thought they had things locked down only to discover their kids adjusted the clock to increase screentime limits, used Google Docs as a chatting platform, or found a backdoor to TikTok through Pinterest. (Remember how we used to program the VCR for our parents? No matter the generation, kids tend to be savvier than adults when adapting to new technology.)
Children are not small adults. Children cannot monitor their own use or understand that what they post online is permanent and public. Our child might be brilliant, but their brain will still not be fully developed until they are in their 20s or even 30s. That means teens can’t be expected to self-regulate yet, either. Parental controls do not teach children how to self-regulate, and children’s brains are not small adult brains.
Parental controls reinforce inequities. Higher-quality parental controls cost money, expertise, and time. Expensive routers and filtering software require subscriptions. Some families simply cannot afford or manage these protections or devote the time to ensuring they work (trust me, they frequently don’t).
It doesn’t make business sense for tech companies to take responsibility and create a solution. Just watch the many congressional hearings in which senators and representatives interviewed executives of YouTube, Instagram, and other tech giants. When pressed, every executive deflected responsibility for protecting children onto the parents. Tech companies tell us they’re making changes to help parents protect children better, but it’s not because they care; they are legally obligated to do so. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 requires that tech companies make some effort to protect underage users, but corporations are doing the bare minimum. Moreover, if parental controls were effective, tech companies would be less profitable–so it is unlikely they will willingly make changes anytime soon.
Tech companies feel less pressure when parents take the blame. It is much easier to put the burden of managing screentime and protecting children on parents than to alter a profitable business model. Parents already have plenty to feel guilty about. By telling parents, “This is your fault,” tech companies deflect responsibility and can maintain the narrative that this is about faulty parenting, not intentional design.
Parents, the key takeaway is this: if parental controls worked, I would not be asked this question regularly, I would not have private coaching clients, and I would not hear story after story about how kids got around the controls.
Remember, this is not our fault. But it is our responsibility as parents to address it. And that starts with understanding what we are up against.