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Why Things Don't Work: Parental Control Software


What is parental control software?

Parental software allows parents to keep track of the sites their children visit online. It also gives parents the option of limiting the sites their child can visit.

Why are they popular?

During the pandemic and the arrival of distance learning, children were required to be online more than at any other time in history. Parents’ anxiety about their child's screen time increased. And for a good reason.

These statistics and their implications are enough to scare anyone.

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Parents want to keep their kids safe from danger. They’re confident telling kids to look both ways before they cross the street and not accept rides from strangers, but online safety is often a new territory and they are unfamiliar with how to regulate it.

This is what makes parental control software attractive.

In fact, in a survey of parents who have teens aged 13 to 17 (Anderson, 2016):

According to a new Digital Civility Survey commissioned by Roblox, 91% of parents believe their kids are likely to come to them for help if they experience issues like online bullying.

In such a dangerous landscape, it is understandable that parents might want to use parental control software. But are they foolproof?

What are the key problems of parental control software?

Hackable (by kids)

Several programs (particularly Apple's Screen Time app) can be bypassed by children. They do it by tweaking the mobile's default times or reinstalling their favorite apps.

Doesn't prevent the problem

If you know kids, you know they don't like hearing "no."

This is due to a psychological concept called "reactance." Reactance describes children’s negative behavior when they are told what to do and are not given any control over their situation.

This explains why kids "hack the system.”

In this context, using parental control software might prevent the problem for a little while.

That is until your child gets access to a screen without parental control software installed and engages in all the “forbidden” apps you tried to protect them from.

Detrimental to self-regulation skills

During children’s developmental years, they learn the self-regulation skills they will take into adulthood. Parents unintentionally prevent kids from developing self-regulation skills when they use parental control software. Without parental control software, children and parents need to have conversations about safe internet use.

This dialogue encourages the child to think about consequences and act accordingly.  Thus, children organically self-regulate when they visit sites they aren't supposed to go on, watch things they shouldn't, or play games they aren't allowed to. It can be hard at first. Like any other skill, self-regulation takes time. But when a parent uses parental control apps, it takes this learning opportunity away from the child.

When parents use software to keep their children safe, kids can feel they aren't trusted to make responsible decisions. The consequence is that kids feel that something is wrong with them. They reason that if they were trusted, parents would talk to them and they could set ground rules together. This can cause a rift within the family dynamic.

Doesn't account for withdrawal issues

Dr. Clifford Sussman, a child psychologist and psychiatrist, coined the terms Low Dopamine Activities (LDA)  and High Dopamine Activities (HDA).

When children play their favorite online games, browse their favorite sites, or watch their favorite videos, their dopamine levels spike.

Having too much dopamine is linked to being more competitive, aggressive and having poor impulse control. It can lead to conditions that include ADHD, binge eating, addiction and gambling.

The continued use of HDAs causes the brain to build a conditioned tolerance. Thus it will require higher levels of dopamine for the child to reach the same level of enjoyment when playing the same activities for an identical amount of time.

When the activity is cut off, it takes time for dopamine levels to return to normal.

Parental control software doesn't account for this withdrawal, making the withdrawal confusing and difficult for the children and their parents.

What should parents do?

Engaging in a healthy conversation about online safety would be an excellent first step.

By simply opening the conversation, parents show their kids they:

  • Care about their child's opinion
  • Trust their child enough to talk about it openly
  • Trust that their child is mature enough to take action themselves

Parents need to be patient when making the switch.

A good way to transition your child from roaming the internet freely to learning how to self-regulate is to use an app like Carrots&Cake. Sameer Sampat, Co-founder of Global School Leaders, said that he found ‘practical, positive advice grounded in research’ using the app. Carrots&Cake is a learning tool that helps parents utilize the most effective educational apps for their child while also helping to shape healthy screen time habits.

Carrots&Cake allows you and your child to work together to create a solution that works for both of you.

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