The Consequences of Control

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Issue 15, Volume 113

By Joanne Hwang, Astrid Harrington 

Spencer Cox, the governor of Utah, signed a bill requiring children to obtain parental permission before opening social media accounts in March 2023. This bill is the latest legislative restriction on children’s access to social media. For years, politicians have tried to limit minors’ access to the Internet, citing explicit content and a mental health crisis. However, preventing children from accessing the Internet does more harm than good, as it keeps them from accessing resources they need while giving parents too much power over their lives.

If parents have too much control over their children’s communication with their friends and search history, it gets harder for children to seek mental health resources themselves. This can be especially harmful for kids who feel alienated by their parents. For example, LGBTQ+ youth growing up in conservative families might need mental health support that they wouldn’t be able to get from their families. Giving parents the ability to control their activities online cuts them off from the possibility of getting that help.

Parental controls on devices seek to protect their children from harmful content online, which is an understandable instinct. However, regardless of whether parents are trying to help their children, taking away their privacy will simply keep them from working through their problems. At a certain point, maintaining firm control over children will only backfire, hurting both the children and their relationship with their parents.

Excessive parental controls and new legislation also indirectly hurt adults. As the New York Times explains, too many restrictions could transform the Internet into a fragmented, age-gated world in which platforms restrict their content to avoid violating laws. Not only would this prevent minors from accessing information that civil liberties groups say they have a constitutional right to see, but it would also make it more difficult for adults to see the content by creating unnecessary barriers to access.

Legislation isn’t the only problem. iOS devices have built-in controls, and a wide variety of parental control apps enable parents to record their child’s location, view their search history, and restrict content. These controls can have beneficial uses, such as locating missing children, encouraging limited screen time, and protecting young children from explicit content. Though some teens are toleratent of tracking because it allows their parents to ensure their safety, the controls and the desire to protect can harm children by damaging relationships, inhibiting responsibility, and preventing access to vital beneficial and vital resources. The Pew Research Center discovered that 39 percent of parents use parental controls to filter and monitor their teen’s online content, 68. Sixty-one percent of parents check whichthe websites their child visits, and nearly half look through their teen’s text messages.

In addition to these methods, parents use tracking apps such as Life360 in the name of protection. The app is used by 42 million people as of June 2022 and has been praised for its ability to keep families connected and safe. Life360 uses cellular technology and GPS to pinpoint the precise location, driving speed, and location history of people within your “circle”—your family and friends. Some of the app’s features include alerting data breaches, reimbursing stolen funds, detecting crashes, and aiding in travel or roadside emergencies. While Life360 is used to give parents a sense of security, for children, the app and other controls feel like an invasion of privacy. The persistent monitoring can create distrust and inhibit children from gaining autonomy instead of being a safety measure.

While parents are right to claim that social media may lead to online victimization and exposure to inappropriate content, monitoring and tracking their child’s daily activities is not the answer. Teens are voicing their opinions on the use of Life360 and other restrictions. Some teenagers claim that their tracking is a violation of trust, and others say that control apps only promote dependence. Several students say that constant monitoring ruins their relationship with their parents, as some parents go to extreme measures to keep their children under parental control. A 20-year-old college student claimed that her dad threatened to cut her off if she didn’t keep Life360. Life360 and other apps can enable invasive and controlling parenting that prevent teenagers from obtaining trust, learning responsibility, and learning rightful Internet conduct. 

Tech companies, parents, and politicians need to understand that their safety measures are harming children instead of protecting them. Companies that create apps such as Bark, Life360, and FamilyTime must acknowledge that while protecting children on the Internet is important, control apps should not be invasive. The Internet is filled with a plethora of resources for mental health, education, and help for teens to adjust to society beyond the beliefs and lifestyles of their own families. Parents should build mutual trust, set expectations, and have conversations with their children rather than monitoring their everyday lives.

Tracking apps, parental controls, and restrictive legislation don’t solve the problems they were designed for. Restrictive legislation, which aims to address a social media-induced mental health crisis, doesn’t solve the root problem: social media companies don’t make an effort to address the negative effects of targeted advertising and problematic content. Rather than focusing on controlling children, parents, politicians, and tech companies should work together to create a safe online environment in which children can explore the Internet without being controlled by their parents. That way, children can still trust their parents and use the Internet in a positive, healthy way.