Because We Can, Should We?
In this posting, we are talking about “monitoring” software and not “filtering” software. Filtering software allows parents and caregivers to prevent youth from accessing specific websites, social media sites, apps, or to set specific restrictions like time limits. Monitoring software allows parents and caregivers to see what a youth is doing online like reading their emails, text messages, or viewing pictures and videos sent. Filtering is about restricting access for a specific reason, monitoring is about viewing what your child is doing online no matter what their access.
We have been sharing for years that youth do not have the right to privacy from parents and caregivers in their onlife world, but they can earn their privacy by showing good digital literacy and maturity over time. It should be noted, in Canada and the United States there is no law or legal precedent that makes it illegal for a parent or caregiver to monitor their child’s activities online. However, even though there is no such law, should parents and caregivers be doing so?
We believe for youth 13yrs and under, parents should be monitoring their child’s use of technology, the internet, and social media. In fact, a 2021 Canadian research paper found that those under the age of 13, “…see parents as an important part of their privacy infrastructure because parents help them steer clear of online pitfalls” (1) and this is what parental monitoring hardware and software can “assist” with.
This Canadian research also found for those under the age of 13:
“At this life stage, sharing the same online spaces with parents can accordingly facilitate privacy and autonomy because parents can help children learn how to make their own choices. They do this by teaching their children how to assert boundaries around their online lives so their children can actively manage invasive behaviour on the part of ill-intentioned online actors. This in turn creates a manageable field of choices for young children who can then navigate the online environment in ways that make sense to them. In this case, privacy and autonomy are not so much about being “left alone”. Instead, they are cultivated through respectful and supportive social relationships with parents.”
Given the above noted, it is very rare that parents will receive push back from youth, 13 years and under, when it comes to parental monitoring software.
Where parents do get privacy concern pushback – with teens between the ages of 13-17yrs, especially when it comes to parental online monitoring. Often, we will hear from this age group that parents have no right to monitor what they are doing in their onlife world. Reflectively, this makes sense to us given that at these ages, youth are starting to spread their wings, looking for autonomy from parents, so that they can develop their own identities. Again, the 2021 Canadian research mentioned above stated:
“This requires a certain amount of privacy from the family, so teens can interact with peers and experiment with different – and new – roles. From this perspective, privacy is not about control over personal information nor solely about being “left alone”; it is about being able to assert appropriate boundaries between a young person’s various social roles and relationships. Privacy is violated when these boundaries are breached.”
Protection Via Monitoring vs Digital Literacy Education and Onlife Participation
In a 2020 report from Media Smarts Canada, they found that parents were so concerned about their child’s safety online, they felt like they needed to constantly monitor what their child was doing online, no matter what their age, to keep them safe. (2)
This doesn’t surprise us, given the fact that parents and caregivers are constantly being bombarded in the media with messaging surrounding how dangerous technology and social media can be to their child’s emotional, psychological, physical, and social wellbeing. Yes, there are dangers online; something that we discuss with both parents and youth in our presentations, but the same can be true for the off-line world as well. In fact, research has shown, “youth who are vulnerable offline are more likely to encounter multiple risks online (3).
Based on our experience in presenting to over a half a million pre-teens and teens from across Canada and the United States, there are far more positive and creative things youth are doing online than there are negative, but these positive things get nowhere near the media coverage as the negative ones do. This is why we believe digital literacy education and parental onlife participation and communication with youth, in all age brackets, is so important and can go a long way in decreasing (not fully eliminating) a parent’s fear when it comes to their child’s participation in the onlife world. We also know through research, parents who engage with their children in their onlife world via parental communication and parental participation, those youth are far less likely to find themselves in a less than desirable situation online (4).
More importantly, some great research out of Great Britain specific to a youth’s onlife exposer to online risk found:
“Exposure to risk seems to play an essential role in the development and manifestation of online resilience. Although many parents worry about risk, some risky experiences give young people the chance to develop ways of coping that can minimize or prevent experiences of harm in the future. If we regard coping as itself a form of digital literacy, this finding can help explain the common finding that digitally literate young people encounter more risks online than their less digitally literate peers.” (5)
To compound this message further, the 2021 Canadian research mentioned at the beginning of this article found:
“…. our qualitative research suggests that when parents do respect their teens’ privacy and trust them to exercise their autonomy in a mature way, teens have the space they need to use networked media in creative ways and come to parents for help when they need it” (1)
For parents who solely depend upon third-party monitoring software to keep their child safe, without combining it with parental communication, parental participation, and digital literacy, they will be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to keeping their child safer in the onlife world. This is why we recommend choosing age-appropriate tech products (rather than a monitoring app) such as the PinWheel Phone (6), or the Tanoshi computer (7), or the Gryphon Router combined with their homebound app (8), which would be the better option for pre-teens and younger teens in their digital literacy journey. These products do not depend upon another vendor’s privacy settings, restrictions, or terms of service.
Based on the good academic research, and our own empirical experience working with youth and parents, what are our thoughts when it comes to the use of parental monitoring software and hardware?
For youth who are 13yrs and under, parents should be engaging with their child in their onlife world via parental communication, parental participation, and digital literacy education, combined with the reasonable use of parental monitoring hardware/software. Our free webbook for parents, “Parenting In An Online World” can definitely help specific to digital literacy education (9)
For youth over the age of 13yrs, as your child is showing maturity and good digital literacy, we believe that they can earn their privacy from parents and monitoring software should be phased out in an incremental process. However, continued onlife parental communication and parental participation is a must, when it comes to the continued parental protection process.
No matter what the age, if your child is truly vulnerable and at risk offline/online, then the research and our experience supports the fact that parental monitoring is a reasonable option when it comes to the parental protection process.
There is a real risk that over the next couple of years, many of the most popular third-party monitoring application that are being sold to parents, will become obsolete given that they will no longer be in congruence with the privacy requirements and guidelines implemented by both Apple and Google. This is another reason why teaching youth about good digital literacy, combined with parental participation and communication are so important in keeping our kids safer in their onlife world.
Remember, the use of parental monitoring software and hardware in isolation, without a dedicated effort to parental communication, parental participation, and digital literacy education, will fail in keeping youth safer online. Ultimately, the choice to use monitoring software and hardware on a youth’s device is a parent’s decision, which can differ from family to family and child to child, based upon a variety of factors mentioned in this article. Any decision a parent or caregiver makes comes with risks and consequences. However, we believe that it’s all about a balanced approach to risk management that is important, especially when it comes to the development and manifestation of youth online resilience, a skill needed throughout life. We hope that this article will provide parents and caregivers with some information to help in this decision process. However, it is our suggestion that just because we can use parental monitoring software and hardware, doesn’t mean we should in all cases.
Digital Food For Thought
The White Hatter