Why the Best Parental Control Is You

Instead of flipping a switch, be the voice in their head. By Christine Elgersma
Why the Best Parental Control Is You

If your kid's online, there have probably been times when you've wanted to track everything they've texted, see their entire social media history, or just shut off the internet entirely. Those are the times you wish for the perfect parental controls -- something that will grant you all the access and authority you want without making a bad situation worse. The truth is, while clicking a few buttons on a hardware device or downloading a monitoring service seem like no-brainers, the most effective parental control is free and knows your kid very well. That's right: It's you. Digital tools and settings can help you stay on top of your kid's online life, but can't replace staying involved, having conversations, and helping them make responsible choices. Need more convincing? Here are the key reasons why you are the best parental control around:

Fighting tech with tech can fail. If they put their minds to it, kids can defeat almost any parental control. One of the truisms of the digital age is that your kids probably know more than you do, and it's easy for them to Google "How do I get around parental controls?" and read step-by-step instructions for dismantling your carefully chosen software or device. Of course, there are tools that do what they promise and offer you some comfort and control … at least for a while. So, if shutting down the internet via a tap is helpful for your family, pairing it with conversations likely will make it more effective. And if your kid does an end run around your parental control, let them learn to code so they can channel their skills in a positive way.

Spying isn't sustainable. Kids -- especially older kids -- may feel like parental controls invade their privacy. According to one study, the loss of trust prompted by parental controls can weaken your whole relationship. Simply shutting the internet off is one thing, but if you try to track your kid's social media accounts or read their text messages, they may just create new profiles and take their conversations to other platforms far away from your prying eyes. Instead, when you decide it's time for them to go online or have a phone, let them know upfront that you'll do spot-checks -- not to "catch them" or get in their business -- but to support them as they learn balance in the digital world. If you decide to use parental-control devices or platforms, integrate them into ongoing conversations so they can serve as a safety net as your kid is learning the ropes. The world of digital media and its influence on our kids are far too complicated for simple solutions or ultra-strict oversight.

What you say makes more of an impact. Instead of flipping a switch, be the voice in their head. Teaching and modeling a healthy approach to the online world will have a much more lasting impact. Being able to shut down the internet in your home at key times can be very helpful, but it's also a bit like always fastening your kid's seatbelt for them: Eventually, we want them to remember to buckle up on their own. To get a kid to really remember something, research shows that some information requires repetition over time. A combination of showing them a healthy approach and discussing media and tech use over time, on multiple occasions, will help kids regulate themselves and build skills to carry into adulthood. When you say things like, "Remember to think before you post," "Don't talk to strangers on the internet," and "Use strong privacy settings," they'll remember. As new technology comes and goes, we are our kids' North Star, the constant guidance in a constellation that keeps changing shape, and tech-based parental controls will never shine as brightly as our influence.

Sharing instead of shutting down sparks learning. Sometimes we let our kids use devices because we're looking for a few minutes to get something finished, and setting time limits and doing spot checks -- verbally or with digital parental controls -- is important. But the more we can watch and play with our kids, the more they'll learn from the media they're using. Research shows that just sitting with your kid while you watch heightens their awareness, which can make them more receptive to learning. It can also boost literacy skills and empathy, and -- since we know our kids best -- when moments come up in media that apply specifically to our kids' lives, we can use those instances to start a discussion, ask questions, and make connections. Also, the more we model this dialogue with media for our kids, the more they can look at it critically, ask questions themselves, and take away lessons for their own lives.

About Christine Elgersma

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Christine Elgersma wrangles learning and social media app reviews and creates parent talks as Senior Editor, Parent Education. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped cultivate and create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app... Read more

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Comments (6)

Parent written by TinaH 1

Hi, I'm late to this thread but thought I would insert a fairly solid and confirmable fact about the relationship between violent video game playing and real life violence. It has been demonstrated in numerous studies that playing violent video games does not necessarily cause the player to behave violently, but DOES diminish the player's sensitivity/internal reaction to violence. A player of video games that are violent/extremely aggresive are *desensitized* to real-world violence when witnessing it in life. The serious danger here is that one could witness a violent situation and not react to it appropriately or with the requisite immediacy that it calls for. I personally find it just disturbing that the number of video games that get such traction are the violent ones. If only we could bottle all that focus, all that interest, all that energy into finding a solution to homelessness.
Parent written by ioindc

this is one of the battles you will face -- and as the parent of this particular 12 year old, you are well aware of them. The fact is, every child, even those with Autism, will have to learn some boundaries. They will have a hard time processing what you're telling them, but tell you must. They *have* to understand the difference between physical friends and online ones. In our home, the rule is, you can "friend" online kids you know in real life. It's a matter of safety, as well as social skills. A kid with autism has much higher needs for building social skills, and playing exclusively online will replace much of the practice he should be getting through real interactions. This is the age at which it gets tough for everyone, but if he fails to build those skills now, his future will be much harder to manage. Any kid this age will have a hard time understanding that profiles are not necessarily real. It is particularly difficult for a kid with autism, who tends to perceive the world in more rigid terms. This puts your child at a particularly high risk if his only relationships are online. Now if the game he's playing is even objectionable, you have even more reasons to spend the time to explain to him why this is a problem. It's really not easy, but really, that's the job that needs to happen. (You're not a troll, trying to enforce some sick stereotype between autistic boys, videogames and shooting, right?)
Adult written by Norman d.

Here's our situation. Our 12 year old recently built his own gaming tower using his Xmas money. Most of his friends play online as opposed to parks or schoolyards. He's also on the spectrum so now having online friends is so important to him. He also has a big brother that comes over once a week. They either hang out or visit a museum,go climbing or a gaming Cafe. One of his online games is a violent single shooter game which we have both ethical and moral issues with. The game has snipers in it. We've told him we are bothered by it and not play it anymore. Well,you can imagine the ensuring storm. " I don't have a brother or a lot of friends and the ones I have are at my school and we all play online. You can't take that away from me" he's a pretty headstrong young man. Is there a compromise here? A voice if experience would help me here.
Teen, 15 years old written by Pinkpoint13

Please don't ignore your moral confliction. Not putting your foot down will only make you feel like you have failed. Your child can discuss many different alternative games to play with his friends. Violence like that in the media stays in peoples minds and hearts even if its not obvious. Its a stronghold. This country has seen its share of gun violence.
Parent written by Damian F.

Gun violence has no correlation with video games. Let your kid play the game he likes, and stop trying to be a nosey parent. Yes we should pay attention to what our kids like, but if you go on a tout about how much you hate guns, or whatever else, they’re not going to listen. You’ve already tuned them off the moment you brought up the subject. A better conversation would be about how the real world works vs. video games.
Adult written by Norman d.

Thanks for the response. No,I'm not a troll. I mentioned he was on the spectrum because he has a remarkable ability to hyperfocus on things he likes ( gaming) and things he's not sure he really needs to do( sitting quietly and reading a ya novel or ya nonfiction). Anyone with a similar child could relate to that.