This past month parents in Whitby's Upper School had an opportunity to hear a presentation on internet safety from Detective Christy Girard of the Greenwich Police Department. Detective Girard made a very compelling case for the use of parental controls. However, as compelling as Detective Girard’s presentation was, I was left with the feeling that her message about the use of parental controls presents a challenge for us to consider in light of other concepts we want our children to learn, understand and practice in relation to digital citizenship. I will explain why I see this as a challenge in a moment but first let’s take a look at the benefits of parental controls.
“These days most devices have some form of parental controls built into the operating system that allow parents to restrict usage and access.”
The parental control features built into the Apple OS allow parents to set time limits on device usage, restrict web access, block applications, limit who you can chat with and even hide profanity from the dictionary.
Above and beyond the standard level of controls native to the OS, there are a variety of software products on the market that take parental controls even further by recording your child’s computer usage including web and search history as well as all of their keystrokes. There are also services provided by phone carriers such as Verizon that allow you to track your child’s location via their smartphone and set up geo-fencing notifications that alert you when your child leaves a given area on the map.
The benefits of parental controls are clear. They provide peace of mind to parents by protecting children from the perils of online access. They can function to dramatically reduce the likelihood that children will be exposed to inappropriate images or videos as well as online predators. They can function as a surrogate parent by shutting down access at a given time. They can protect your child from themselves by limiting their ability to make bad choices.
If you are a busy parent then everything I have described above may sound like the perfect solution...but there is another view of parental controls that needs to be considered.
Those of you who have been reading my articles from the beginning may recall how we defined trust, responsibility and making smart choices as the the building blocks of digital citizenship. The unfortunate truth is that the choice to use parental controls undermines the trust in your relationship with your children and it reduces your children’s opportunities to make smart choices and to take responsibility for their actions.
Moreover, the path of using parental controls is difficult to sustain and may even inhibit the kind of exploration and freedom that promotes creative thinking.
I said may inhibit in the last sentence because for some parents it could go in a different, more unhealthy direction. It actually presents another conundrum. For some families, putting restrictions on devices when your children are old enough to know that there is a world beyond those restrictions will pretty much guarantee that your children are going to find away around those restrictions.
Now let’s pause for a minute and consider this idea. Children finding creative ways to bypass restrictions is exactly the kind of creative problem solving that we need our kids to be engaged with. But, this is not the part of this scenario which is the conundrum. The conundrum is that if they are at a point where they are bypassing the restrictions you put in place then that is going to force them to be even more secretive about what they are doing online in the first place.
This begs the tough question about which is the better scenario for parenting your child. Would you rather your children be discovering the world in front of you where you can have conversations about what they are seeing to support and frame their understanding or would you rather they are discovering the world in secret where you are not around to provide the kind of guidance that will help them make meaning of what they find?
I am ending this article like my first one by posing a few questions that I hope our community of engaged parents will take time to reflect on. What is the message we are sending our children about trust when we resort to using only parental controls? If you decide to use parental controls then what are you doing to build trust and develop your child’s ability to make smart choices and take responsibility? How do parental controls help our kids learn to be critical thinkers? How do parental controls support your children in learning to develop the kind of self-management skills needed to know when to put down technology?
And finally, what opportunities for growth and development do we sacrifice when we choose the path of parental controls?