As the internet becomes engrained in everyday life, parents are understandably looking for ways to protect their children from threats online. Predictably, many turn to the government to legislate safety, despite existing solutions. However, seeking to offload parental guidance onto government or private companies will fail as neither will replace the benefits of effective parenting.
When parents are trying to find ways to curate their children’s online experience, they have a plethora of options to choose from to suit their needs. Most major web browsers and search engines offer built-in controls that can be used to filter search results of questionable content, such as Google SafeSearch. As well as many operating systems offer parental controls that allow the parents have the tools to succeed in their fight to keep their children protected.
While for many people this is sufficient, for families that want more extensive options some apps allow for a wide range of parental controls including monitoring activity and limiting screen time. Many apps also allow for supervision and control over children’s internet activities, giving parents plenty of options for tailoring the settings to the needs and preferences of their family.
Despite their convenience, when it comes to parental controls for internet-enabled devices, there are limitations, especially when used as the only method of moderating children’s online activities. A report by EU Kids Online argued that previous studies had not been able to conclude how well parental controls worked, with different outcomes based on the age of the children in question and how parents implemented the protections. For example, in the full report, parental control software was shown to be better at blocking unwanted adult content for young teenagers and preteens but less effective for older teenagers.
In addition, a study in Greece found that many parental control apps were not very effective at detecting questionable content when it wasn’t in English.
Despite these limitations, there are also ways to get around legislative attempts. Flaws in government attempts at internet censorship played out in real-time as Virginia passed legislation requiring adult websites to verify the age of users. Immediately afterward, Virginia became the state with the most searches for VPNs, which circumvent geographically based restrictions by making it look like the access is from a different location. While it is unclear the age of the people searching for VPNs, this does illustrate how government restrictions are easily exploitable.
Neither laws nor parental control software should be seen as an automatic fix for all problems, and while existing options can be circumvented, the same is true for government mandates. The reality is that no government laws, or private offerings, can adequately replace parental involvement and guidance in the online space. Ignoring this reality will doom any genuine attempt at protecting children online.
Trey Price is a technology policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information, visit https://www.theamericanconsumer.org/ or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.