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What Do Parents Hope to Get Out of Parental Controls?

Screen tools are parental placebos, not teaching tools.

The Washington Post recently reported that teens have figured out how to get around Apple’s Screen Time. It beats me why parents are surprised. Kids and teens today have a lot of experience navigating their digital worlds. They know how to find solutions to problems through experimentation and by looking online. I google recipes, so why shouldn’t they do the same to achieve their goals?

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A more important question is: What are we hoping to get out of parental controls? Apple Screen Time, or any parental control on a device, artificially controls behavior. It doesn’t teach self-regulation, promote critical thinking (unless you count hacking), explain why limiting screen time is a good idea, and it does nothing to inhibit the motivation to go online. In fact, for many teens, it may increase the desire.

I have nothing against using these kinds of tools with the recognition that artificial controls only constrain a certain behavior with a certain app or device. They don’t teach good habits that are transferable to other situations or devices. Parental controls should be viewed as training wheels until a kid gets his or her balance, not a solution. To overuse the bicycle metaphor: Getting balance requires education and practice. If you’re using parental controls as a sense of security that you’re protecting your kids, you’re fooling yourself.

The only solution is education. Call it media literacy, technology literacy, or digital citizenship — what matters is that kids are taught about the benefits, challenges, and dangers of living in a digital world. They will only learn this if you help teach them.

There is a myriad of important topics, big and small, that are fundamental to the goal of parental controls — healthy screen use. These are just a few:

  • The risks of using your screen while walking or driving
  • How using a screen right before bed may keep you from falling asleep
  • The importance of balance
  • The cognitive burden of continual interruptions that impact performance (from grades to basketball)
  • How to navigate social relationships that flow from online to offline and back again
  • How to recognize and withstand bullies, trolls, and other dangers
  • How to identify misinformation (and our tendency to believe things that match what we already think)
  • The illusion of digital privacy
  • The permanence (and lack of control) over online information and images

All of these topics are part of good media literacy training and all need explanations as to why. Just because kids quit nagging you for explanations doesn't mean they no longer want them. It is the foundation for critical thinking. But explaining requires a long enough conversation to understand what drives kids and to help them see how healthy digital behaviors fit into their goals — it means finding out what matters to them. Controls — or even access — should be put that context.

Caution: Phones are the portal into a kid’s social life — which is to say, a phone represents everything he or she cares about. Don’t make judgments about the value they place on being connected based on your needs or what it was like when you were a teenager. Try to acknowledge and respect their needs in how you establish boundaries and rules.

This does not mean letting kids make the rules — it means letting them feel heard. Kids have a much shorter time horizon on goals than adults — not many 14-year-olds worry about much beyond the next day at school or the weekend. They may argue that they don't need sleep or that having their phones on all night doesn't bother them. Maybe they think that their grades won't suffer if they text while doing homework or that the world will stop if they miss a message.

Take the time to explain your reasoning and show how it relates to their goals. You may need to help them think about their goals — both short and long term. Or let them run an occasional experiment to "prove you wrong." If you can connect with them early enough, it will establish a powerful pattern of communication. Kids may not always like what you’re doing, (mine surely didn't and often still don’t) but, surprisingly, they will respect that you gave them a why and they will feel cared for. If you don’t take the time to develop trust and lay the foundation for critical thinking, you will face teenage years full of hacking, burner phones, and other means of subverting whatever controls you can think up.

More from Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A.
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