Parental oversight does not work to protect children online.

There are great studies carried out across the world from time to time attempting to understand what young people, children and teenagers, are doing online. This is of course a moving feast that alters with the oncoming of each new gadget or app’ that trends and dominates their lives for a while.

A one year old child flipping through a magazine is attempting to scroll down the page with a two-finger swipe. The child gets upset because the page is unresponsive and reverts to a nearby iPad. The video entitled “A magazine is an iPad that doesn’t work” received over 5 million hits and generated considerable debate among viewers in 2011. What this immediately demonstrates is that people of all ages, both young and old, value a sense of depth and variety in digital media content that is capable of entertaining their intellectual capability.

The only real boundary to this technology going forward is the evolution of hardware, and the app’s that avail of it. Take the power of the latest iPad (Pro) for instance and the capability that it affords in terms of processing, audio and video, and split screens with multiple applications running side by side. App’s like Snapchat (as just one example) are designed to restrict the distribution of information and images meaning that young people attribute significant trust to the app’s capability and as a result, tend to take risks in the nature of the data that they are exchanging. The continuous upgrading of app’s to provide new functionality often means that the people using them don’t actually know what that functionality is capable of. For instance, in our talks to students we find that even though geo-location services are ten a penny in app’s, students are aghast to discover that there are applications out there that are designed to discover and track their social media posts where they have location services enabled.

It is estimated that over 36% of children under the age of one have touched some sort of screen. Children are not just following some trend among the adult population of technology users. They are adapting to technology as an everyday tool with amazing speed, and that is putting pressure on parents and guardians who are generally not keeping pace. Indeed a survey in 2014 discovered that as many as forty percent of parents were learning about computing from their children. The reason why this is of concern is oversight: how do you oversee a child, and in particular a teenager that knows more about technology that you (the parent) do. It is this very fact that is challenging relationships between children and their parents since the latter cannot comprehend what their offspring are doing online, let alone have any inclination to oversee it.

In 2011, a survey of parents of six to sixteen year olds found that up to ninety three percent of Irish parents mitigate in some fashion what their children are doing online, which is utterly astonishing given the gulf between parents and young people with regard to their online activities. I suppose one would need to understand just what the term ‘mitigate’ meant and the context of the question(s) that determined a positive or negative response. What the evidence really tells us is that the divergence of technical capability between children and adults means that parents are generally not capable of such mitigation and in our own research into online image abuse and sexting, and running talks and workshops for parents since 2008, we found that to be the case.

Parents of younger children need to instil good habits, and parents of all children need to ADOPT good habits. Many parents post hundreds of images of their children online with all manner of captions and identifying commentary meaning that should a child at some point in the future decide that their privacy is important to them, then they will have a job of work to do to ensure that their digital footprint having been created at a young age by their parents is challenging to manage.

Teenagers as we know have their own range of difficulties online. The news channel CNN ran a series of reports about thirteen year olds online and discovered the the heavier users among them checked into their social media account over one hundred times per day. Sixty one percent wanted to see if their posts were getting likes and twenty one percent wanted to ensure that no-one was giving them grief or negative comments. In short, teenagers are preoccupied with their online image and popularity and that makes them very easy targets for abuse and bullying online. To cap it off (comparing the 2011 Irish survey to CNN) they found the ninety four percents of parents surveyed completely underestimated the amount of online fighting that was occurring through social media.

The message is blatant and clear. Short of banning an awful lot of app’s and web sites – assuming that this were even remotely possible, and it isn’t – the notion of parental oversight in digital space is a myth that society, and in particular some of the ever expanding cadre of online safety experts, need to get past very quickly. One of the most basic truths of digital space and the internet is that it is difficult if not impossible to be entirely private online. Another huge truth is that parental oversight must work with pre-schoolers, at some level does work (with parental effort) with primary level children, and almost certainly doesn’t work with second level teenagers.

With all that in mind, the only reality that will work to protect children online is to design a realistic educational approach incorporating theory and practical demonstration that in the end shows the student what works, what doesn’t, and gives them the confidence to interact online with the knowledge that if they do not take account of what they are being taught, then it is their own responsibility if things go wrong.

And so the message of this post is: parental oversight does not work to protect children online.