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Parental-control apps may prevent kids from learning how to handle online threats

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Mobile apps designed to keep children safe from online predators may be counterproductive, as they harm the trust between parents and kids, as well as reduce the young one’s ability to respond to online threats, a study has found.

In a pair of studies led by the University of Central Florida in the US, researchers examined the types of parents who use parental-control apps on their teen’s mobile smartphone, whether the apps actually helped keep teens safe online, and what teens and younger children thought about their parents using these apps.

For a generation that has grown up with network technology and uses it for almost every facet of their lives, from completing homework assignments to connecting with friends and sharing personal information, the results of this research may be life changing.

Researchers found that authoritarian parents, who were less responsive to their teen’s need for autonomy, were most likely to use parental control apps, and the use of these apps was associated with teens experiencing more, not fewer, online risks, including unwanted explicit content, harassment and online sexual solicitations.

This study was based on a survey of 215 parent-and-teen pairs in the US.

“Parental involvement and direct supervision were both associated with fewer peer problems and less online victimisation for teens, but neither of these factors correlated with the use of parental control apps,” said Arup Kumar Ghosh, a doctoral student in UCF.

“The fear that teens will fall victim to unthinkable online dangers persists, and our research is challenging the current solutions for protecting teens online by tightening the reins. Instead, we suggest empowering teens to be agents of their own online safety,” said Pamela Wisniewski, an assistant professor at UCF.

“Our findings suggest that most parental-control apps are just that – apps that attempt to control what teens can do online, but ultimately do little to keep them safe online,” said Wisniewski.

In the second study, researchers wanted to know how teens and younger children felt about these parental-control apps. The researchers analysed 736 publicly posted reviews written by teens and younger children for parental-control apps. They found that about 79% of the reviews written by children rated the apps at either two stars or less out of a possible five.

Further analysis uncovered three major themes behind the negative ratings – children found the apps overly restrictive, were an invasion of their personal privacy, and supported “lazy” or bad parenting instead of improving communication channels between them and their parents.

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