Safety and Surveillance Software Practices as a Parent in the Digital World

Safety & Surveillance Software Research Brief (1)


For many parents, the digital landscape their children are growing up in is vastly different than the one they grew up in. In a recent survey, 66% of parents believe that parenting now is harder than it was 20 years ago, and parents are naming technology as a main factor (Auxier et al., 2020). To manage this, parents use many mediation techniques, including restrictive mediation, active mediation, and co-use. Restrictive mediation involves creating rules which limit time and content, while active mediation involves explaining and discussing media content with children to guide their choices.Co-use involves using media together with children (Livingstone & Helsper, 2008). The comparison of these practices when it comes to outcomes like screen time and children’s and teens’ media risks have been extensively studied (for a review, see: Chen & Shi, 2019). However, a sub-type of mediation, surveillance, is commonly used by parents of children and teens. For younger children, ages 5-11, 75% of parents report checking the websites and apps their child uses, 72% use parental controls to restrict time on devices, 49% look at call records or text messages, and 33% track their child’s location through GPS apps or software (Auxier et al., 2020). Research reviewed in this brief will explore the motivations for, parent and child opinions of such practices, and risks and benefits of surveillance practices on children and teens.

Technology is no longer constrained to household devices that are more easily monitored by parents – mobile devices make up a large proportion of the digital landscape, and use of these devices exists in “individualized, personalized, and, for children, unsupervised spaces” (Livingstone, 2009, p. 156). However, the myriad of applications available to users of mobile devices means that surveillance can also happen in many ways, both through direct surveillance tactics and more general communication “check-ins.” Parents may use gaming apps or messaging apps, rather than more intrusive forms of communication like text messages or calls, to let their child know they are watching out for them, and perhaps nudge them to check in and let the parent know they are okay (Balmford et al., 2021). Two types of formal surveillance and media mediation tactics will be further explored below: time and content monitoring applications, and GPS and tracking applications. This research brief recognizes that for many parents these strategies may overlap or evolve as a child’s age increases and family media rules change.

Parental Control Software: Time and Content Management

Some children and teens have applications downloaded onto their mobile device through which a parent can monitor or control many aspects of their child’s use of the device. The market for these applications is far-reaching and growing, as evidenced by numerous articles in magazines and news outlets comparing the “best” monitoring applications that feature the ability to manage screen time, block applications, block content, view a child’s social media accounts, track movement with GPS features (see below for a more in-depth analysis of this feature), view and monitor texts and emails, and more. Research has begun to explore how the features of these applications are perceived by parents and children, and how remote monitoring and control may affect parent-child dynamics.

Concerns about the safety of the internet and social media interactions, in particular, have fueled a market for parental control applications that tout their features as ways to keep children and teens safe (Wisniewski et al., 2017). Parents may also wish to curb what they perceive as problematic use of devices, and monitoring software is more likely to be adopted by parents who perceive problematic use as a greater threat (Stewart et al., 2021). Ironically, although parents may create restrictions to keep their children off their phone during the school day, recent research found that parental control applications send the most notifications within school hours (Radesky et al., 2023). Overall, authoritarian parents (i.e. those who have strict rules and punishments, parent-led rules) are most likely to use monitoring software (Ghosh et al., 2018b).

What are the pros and cons of an all or nothing approach?

But when it comes to the function of the features on available monitoring applications and software, the features overwhelmingly support parental control and very few encourage active mediation or provide child self-regulation support (Cino et al., 2020; Wisniewski et al., 2017). Recent research expanding Wisneiwski et al.’s framework for evaluating parental control software found that the most popular control applications used by parents of children feature all-or-nothing filtering where parents have to “either block all contents and request access to every detail . . . or [gain] no access . . . at all” (40%), and over half (54%) did not include any mechanism for negotiation of rules against what the parent requested (Wang et al., 2021). As a result of these features, parents and children can sometimes have very different perspectives on the use of parental control software.

How do children view time and content management controls?

The right to privacy may become a point of contention when monitoring applications are used. Ghosh et al. (2018a) evaluated reviews of parental control applications written by children and teens and found that they were overwhelmingly negative – 76% of the ratings were only one star. Overly restrictive practices and privacy invasion featured prominently in negative reviews evaluated by the researchers. Children and teens noted that the restrictions were sometimes so great that they could not even access required content like websites for homework, and equated the restriction of the applications with a general restriction of their personal freedom. Similarly, analysis of opinions and reviews of these applications from children have found many negative opinions from children focus on privacy and used words like “stalking” to describe the feeling of the app and expressed anger and dissatisfaction that their parents would invade their privacy and show a lack of trust rather than talking to them about their phone use (Alelyani et al., 2019; Ghosh et al., 2018a; Wang et al., 2021).

The extreme negative response to these applications from many children and teens suggests that when these restrictions are imposed without any child input or parental explanation of their reasoning, youth may feel resentful towards their parents, creating or exacerbating parent-child relationship problems. Children and teens seem to overwhelmingly endorse mediation techniques that are more active in nature – even in the minority of reviews that were positive, 12% liked the ability to communicate with their parent or negotiate the restrictions (Ghosh et al., 2018). Importantly, some children and teens who acknowledged struggling with time spent on their device did endorse the applications’ ability to regulate their media use (Alelyani et al., 2019; Ghosh et al., 2018a; Wang et al., 2021).

How do parents view time and content management controls?

For parents, the software may be interpreted quite differently. Recent research suggests that parental control software may decrease parental stress and increase their well-being (Bertrandias et al., 2023). Since children who are victimized online or appear to their parent to be using media problematically are more likely to be monitored using these apps, they may provide a sense of support and security for parents (Ghosh et al., 2018b; Stewart et al., 2021). This sense of security may be related to personal beliefs surrounding their parenting practices. For example, reviews of an application that supports screen time management frequently allude to how using the product is a “good” parenting practice (Cino et al., 2020). Celebrity or organizational endorsements, common on the websites of parental control software and applications, may further insinuate that using these tools is the best option, and the right thing to do to keep children safe.

Do children have a right to privacy on their devices?

Opinions about whether or not children should have full private access on their devices varies among parents as well. For some, the amount of information provided by monitoring applications seems overwhelming and excessive (Wang et al., 2021). For other parents, knowing every detail is important to them. Both in research and in popular news media, there is a subset of parents who believe they have a right to their child’s information because they own the device, they pay for the device, or they simply feel that parents should have unfettered access in order to best protect their children (Null, 2020; Wang et al., 2021).

Finally, research has explored the nuance of privacy and security overall for these applications. Security threat analyses of parental monitoring devices and software found that possible data leaks or captures could result from account hacking or a leak from the database of the application itself (Ali et al., 2020). Additionally, Ali et al.’s (2020) analysis found that some personally identifiable information may not be securely transferred by the application, possibly resulting in access to information like voice recordings in a data breach.

Location Tracking: GPS and Tracking Applications

In 2020, 33% of parents with children aged 5-11 tracked their location with GPS monitoring (Auxier et al., 2020). Experimental research from Finland suggests that young children may have positive perceptions of monitoring due to an increase in feelings of safety and an understanding of the benefits for their parents (Ervasti et al., 2016). More recent research corroborates these findings, as younger children were more likely to feel positively about overall use of digital tracking than older children and adults (Gelman et al., 2021). Additionally, trust of the tracker was an important factor for positive or negative rating of tracking. By age 7-8, children perceived tracking more negatively when it was between groups (i.e. not belonging to the same social group, different everyday practices, etc.) (Gelman et al., 2021). This may suggest that even young children are aware of who they feel comfortable tracking them, and how increased safety and increased danger may both result from location tracking depending on who has access to their geographic information.

Should a child be involved in the decision to track them?

For adolescents, the percentage who have their movement monitored may be even higher; when researchers surveyed U.S. adolescents about their parental monitoring habits, 50% reported that their parents monitored their location (Burnell et al., 2023). Parents were also surveyed, and interestingly, some discrepancies appeared for a small percentage of dyads (pair of a child and parent). 14% of children reported that their parent did not track them when their parent reported they did track their child (Burnell et al., 2023). The authors suggest further research should explore the effect of unsuspected surveillance on parent-child trust. Mavoa et al. (2023) found, additionally, that although a majority of parents believe that their children have a right to know they are being monitored, most did not give children a choice about being monitored. Overall, research shows that adolescent girls are tracked more than adolescent boys – this follows similar information trends for adolescents generally, where girls are more likely to disclose information to a parent but also remain more likely to have information solicited by their parent (Kerr & Stattin, 2000).

What are the privacy implications of surveillance?

It is not enough, however, to simply acknowledge this as a current mediation and monitoring habit and evaluate its prevalence. We must explore why geographic information is so commonly sought between child and parent. What are the privacy and safety implications of such surveillance? The answers may lie in the framing of the level of safety children experience every day and the marketing of the applications which purport to increase safety through geographic surveillance. Some argue that the mass adoption of tracking devices and other surveillance tactics may cause children to expect surveillance in all parts of their lives and, similar to opinions about other parental control software, create a good/bad parent dichotomy where parents believe social surveillance is a hallmark of effective care and supervision of children (Balmford et al., 2021; Mavoa et al., 2023; Simpson, 2014; Sukk & Siibak, 2021). Contextualizing the risk/benefit of this surveillance tactic is sometimes difficult for parents. When surveyed about their surveillance practices, parents often rejected the word “tracking” for softer language like “checking in” (Mavoa et al., 2023).

Does surveillance make kids safer?

There are some who theorize that surveillance applications , although often marketed with the assurance of more freedom for parent and child, actually increase the suspicion of the world as a dangerous and fearful place where children are incompetent, and offer a false sense of security by equating knowledge of location with safety instead of providing youth with independent safety strategies (Mavoa et al., 2023; Simpson, 2014). While further work should be conducted to understand this theory of contradiction, some preliminary work suggests that children may be deeply concerned about their safety and feel that tracking apps increase their level of protection. For example, when developing co-designed strategies for mobile safety applications with children aged 7-12, a majority thought their parents should be able to track their location, with one representative reason being that parents should “see if [kids] are robbed or kidnapped” (McNally et al., 2018). These dramatic examples posited as everyday dangers may suggest that surveillance applications make the world seem like a dangerous place where children feel they must be constantly watched in order to remain safe.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The adoption of technology-assisted parental monitoring of children’s digital practices is becoming more prevalent and possibly shifting the understanding of what it means to be a “good” parent. But there is clearly a separation between parental opinions of these surveillance practices and the opinions of their children about the use of these software and applications. Many children appear to desire surveillance practices that support their autonomy or support collaboration between parent and child. Some research has explored the opportunity for co-creation of parental control software features, and of new applications. Wang et al. (2021) posit that “the inherent problem with the parental control apps we reviewed is that they were focused exclusively on effective restriction and monitoring, instead of digital parenting” (p. 21, emphasis added).

How can this shift toward digital parenting practices take shape? 

Researchers suggest strategies for parents and designers alike such as creating applications that support:

  • Scaffolding of restrictions that can be eliminated as digital skills are learned;
  • Including teens in the design process for new applications;
  • Building teen risk-coping strategies; and
  • Encouraging active parenting and communication between parent and child (Ghosh et al., 2018a, 2018b: McNally et al., 2018; Wang et al., 2021; Wisniewski et al., 2017).

What features will appeal to both children and parents?

Unique applications created by researchers (ex. CO-oPS, Teen-alyse, FamiLync) highlight features that encourage self-regulation and active mediation of time limits and content; exploratory research suggests these types of applications have promise and appeal to both children and parents (Akter et al., 2022; Ghosh et al., 2020; Ko et al., 2015; Sangal et al., 2021).

Ultimately, there appears to be a need for parental monitoring practices and the applications themselves to evolve in ways which encourage child and teen buy-in to the surveillance practices parents use to keep them safe.

This research brief was written by Kaitlin Tiches, MLIS. For more information, please email us.


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