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Children and young people can spend a significant amount of their time using devices and exploring the online world. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this – it’s a place for them to socialise, to play, and to learn. However, with Ofcom reporting that 9 in 10 children in the UK will own a mobile phone by age 11, the idea of using parental control apps has become much more appealing to parents and carers.
For some, using a parental control app will seem like a natural step to prevent their child from seeing or experiencing something harmful online, like wrapping them in digital cotton wool. They might even see parental control apps as a way to secretly enforce device usage rules and check they are being followed.
But is this the answer to online safety? Is it really that easy,or are there pitfalls to avoid? In this online safety guide, we’ve highlighted what these apps are and how they can be used, with an overview of some of the most popular apps currently on offer. We have also provided advice that parents and carers canuse to create pathways to healthy online safety habits for children and young people.
What Are Parent Apps?
The main purpose of a parental control app is to monitor a child’s online activity and limit potential encounters withinappropriate or harmful content. Each app is different and will offer different features, but most are likely to offer the following:
Monitor search history.
Block websites or apps.
Schedule designated screentime.
View text and/or audio messages.
Alert parents to a child’s physical location.
Tell parents who children are talking to online.
Showcall logs and thenumbers a child may be contacting/contacted by.
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the Age Appropriate Design Code, you can download software on any device you own. However, the app must alert a child to the fact they are being monitored. The statutory design code says that:
“If you provide parental controls, give the child age appropriate information about this. If your online service allows a parent or carer to monitor their child’s online activity or track their location, provide an obvious sign to the child when they are monitored.”
ParentShield is a ‘child-safe mobile network’ in the UK that promises to provide parents and carers with “peace of mind” as their children begin to use technology. It ranges from £9.99 to £24.99 a month. However, even as it claims to be the “only mobile network designed for children”, there are some concerns over its impact on family dynamics and its overall role in the world of parental controls.
Functions & Features Include:
All-network SIM that works with multiple UK networks.
‘Call allow’ list that blocks any call from an unapproved number.
Unlimited calls to home.
All text messages and phone calls recorded.
Data budgeting features.
Word alerts that can be customised to feature specific words.
Retailing from £39.95 a year for five devices, Qustodio markets itself as a way to keep children’s screen time ‘safe and balanced’.
Functions & Features Include:
Filtering content, platforms and apps.
Blocking access to inappropriate apps, games and websites.
Viewing activity timeline, browsing history, YouTube views and screen time.
Map location to see where they are and have been.
Saving the most visited places (like school and home) and receiving notifications when they arrive or leave those locations.
View who a child contacts via text message and phone call on Android.
View search and viewing history on YouTube.
See who they are messaging with on Facebook.
Receiving real time alerts that are triggered when a child attempts to access a blocked site.
A panic button – a child can press a SOS button and up to 4 trusted contacts will be alerted to the child’s location and that they are in trouble. The child’s location is updated every few minutes until it is turned off.
This app has a monthly fee that starts at £24.99 for a limited range of features and goes up to £44.99 for access to them all. It’s worth noting that this app advertises itself on social media as a way for partners to monitor each other’s phone activity secretly and operates in a covert fashion – i.e., the person being spied on won’t know they’re being spied on. Under the ICO and the Age Appropriate Design code, this raises legal concerns if it were to be used on a child’s device in the U.K.
Functions & Features Include:
Ability to read their social media chats.
See where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Find out who they’ve called.
See what someone has searched for online.
See pictures that are sent and received.
Review all texts – included deleted messages.
View all content from a control panel.
Ability to monitor without being detected – once it is installed, the software is invisible to the user.
By covertly installing a parent app, you could break any sense of trust in your relationship if they discover the app. The potential consequences of that far outweigh the benefits any parent app can provide. For example, should a child or young person see something online that worries or upsets them, they might not feel comfortable to discuss it with the person who installed the app. A parent app is a preventative measure, but it can’t replace the benefits of having a trusted adult to talk to if something does go wrong. Nor can it give them a supportive hug or signpost to further help.
Even if a parent app is well hidden on a device, there’s always the possibility that a young person will realise they can’t access certain sites or wonder how you know information they haven’t told you, and put two and two together.
From a young age, we teach children about danger. Don’t cross the road without looking, don’t put your fingers in the plug socket, and don’t go anywhere with strangers or without permission. This is inevitably followed up by a child’s favourite question – ‘why?’ Explaining that the reason a child can’t do something is because it’s dangerous is an important part of that learning process.
Simply blocking websites and apps without explanation is a bit like avoiding teaching a child why they can’t grab the pot handle – you don’t need to go into the horrible details about the consequences of getting hurt, but you do need to offer some age-appropriate reasoning. Teaching a child that certain apps and platforms are for grown-ups only, monitoring their digital devices use, and educating them on how to talk to a trusted adult about something upsetting gives them some of the tools they’ll need for exploring the online world. This is especially important, as most children and young people consider their online lives to have the same level of importance as their offline life.
Not every parent app works ‘in secret’. Some software will be conspicuous by design or will only be installed with the child or young person’s knowledge and permission. Remember – agreeing together with your child or young person will always be a more beneficial approach to online safety.
However, even if the child or young person knows the app is there, this doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘everything is fine’ and you can rest easy when it comes to online safety.
Young people can be secretive, as they go through the natural stages of growing up, exploring who they are and craving independence. They are also typically more ‘tech-savvy’ than their parents, with many now using tech from a young age. If a young person should want to stop their parent or carer from viewing their online activity through a parental control app, they can find a way. With a quick search online, it’s incredibly easy to find videos and websites with workarounds for most of the popular parent apps.
It’s easy – and logical – to think that an app that says it will protect children online can be trusted to do just that, but no technology is perfect. This is especially true when it comes to the amount of information that apps collect (and require) about their users. Browsing history, personal interests, and even location may be collected by the data monitored by parental control apps. It’s always important to read the terms and conditions before making any decisions!
For example, mSpy was hacked in both 2015 and 2018, resulting in the data of thousands of users being leaked. During the 2018 breach, an open database was available online that contained the usernames, passwords, and private encryption keys of every customer who had logged into or bought the license during the previous six-month period. With this information, a device with mSpy installed could be tracked and have WhatsApp and Facebook messages viewed.
The online world is fast moving. Circumstances change and new factors come into play all the time, like new platforms being launched, children finding a way around parental controls, and breaches in security.
That’s one of the reasons that children and young people’s online safety should be approached like an ecosystem. It needs a network of supporting components to work. That might include the use of parent apps, should you choose to do so, but it also needs the support of parents, carers, and the school community, as well as continued digital safeguarding education.
There’s no shortcut to safeguarding! Parent apps should not be used as an ‘install it and forget it’ method forsafeguarding children and young people online. If you do choose to use monitoring software, it should be in conjunction with a range of other measures. There’s no substitute for developing and maintaining a relationship in which a child or young person feels they can be open and honest about their online experiences.
Discuss it with your child or young person.We would encourage you not to download something onto their device without discussing and agreeing on it first. This might seem like an impossible task (especially for those with teenagers) but it is an important building block inestablishing mutual trust. You may find it helpful to agree on certain rulesand boundaries (such as screentime limits,etc.) together.
Choose wisely. Protecting the personal information of those in your care is the most important thing you can do.If you decideto use a parental control app, make sure you’ve done your research first. Read reviews, search online for any news about the app, and check what’s been done with the data collected. Remember that not all companies will be based in the UK andwon’t necessarily have to follow the UK’s data protection rules.
Never outsource the safeguarding of your child or young person. Ask yourself what is being done to help protect your child or young person online. Are you talking to them about online safety? How are you staying up to date with safeguarding news and alerts? Is online safety an active part of their school lessons?It’s never too late to take an active role in helping make your child safer online.
DIY – Do It Yourself!You may be able to do some of the features offered by parent apps yourself, such as adding safe search filters, adjusting parental controls, and choosing safety settings. Visit our Safety Centre together with your child or young person tolearn how to do things like block and report on some of the most popular apps and platforms.
Talk and trust are two of the best tools.Don’t underestimate how much ‘parental control’ you can gain just by having open, honest, non-judgemental conversations with yourchild or young person! Make their online activities just as much a part of your conversations as their ‘offline’ activities. If they come to you with a concern about something they’ve encountered online, stay calm and reassure them.
Remember that ‘switching off’ isn’t always the answer. To children and young people, the digital world is an extension of the real world. Blocking them from using a certain app or platform is the modern-day equivalent of banning them from the Friday night youth club or from going out with their group of friends – it doesn’t solve the root of the problem, may isolate them, and could stop them from coming to you in the future with any problems.