Kids & Screens: Parental Controls or Shared Admin Rights?
From the feedback I received from my oldest child, who is now in college, it is clear that parental controls don't always work. Parental controls can be an effective tool for younger children, but when they grow older, sharing administrative rights might be the better option.
Before I move on to the discussion about parental controls and admin rights, I want to reiterate that the most powerful and effective strategy available to parents by far is the 'One Simple Rule', which is keeping all screens out of the bedroom at all times.
When my oldest child was in elementary school, I was not yet aware of the option of buying refurbished laptops and installing Linux1, and so we had purchased a rather expensive Apple laptop. MacOS came with a parental controls feature built in, which allowed me to manage websites, authorise the installation of new software, and set screen times. This last feature in particular helped avoid falling into a negative evening routine of confrontations about turning off screens; the devices just switched off automatically at the agreed time.
My oldest reflected that while these quite powerful tools may be effective up to a certain age, from about 15 they began to feel restrictive and policing, which can damage trust:
It frustrated me that I was being monitored so closely. In all honesty, these rules and regulations did more harm than good. It didn't feel like it taught me about online safety or using screens in a healthy way; it just felt controlling.
A particular problem was that with every installation of new software, I would have to enter the parental controls password, which is tedious for both parties. My child also didn't like knowing that browsing history could be accessed by us. Parental tools seem to do the most the work for you, which is great, and a systematic setup ensures consistent checking, but all of this may not be worthwhile when your child begins to feel controlled and is not learning good online habits.
So, what is the best way forward? Firstly, I would argue that the time management controls do work well with younger children. They understand and like routines, so an automatic shutdown is effective. But around the age of 15, or perhaps earlier, this needs to be replaced with face-to-face discussion instead, so the child can learn and grow into more responsible habits. For any adult, an automatic shut-down would feel very patronising.
Secondly, I believe that parents should have continued access to some information. With my middle child, who loves video games, I use the Microsoft Family Safety feature, which sends me a weekly report of the number of hours spent on screens and which games or software were used. I have disabled all the other Xbox control features, because giving permission exceptions for individual games became too time-consuming, but I like the weekly info update. The total number of hours per week can be quite surprisingly high! Additionally, my children know that we can see their browser history, though we rarely look. Finally, I block spending on gaming platform stores, such as Xbox, Steam and Nintendo; If they want to spend money, they need to run it by me first.
The main strategy I want to propose here as a better alternative to parental control tools is sharing admin rights with your child. Adolescence may be a good time to begin phasing out parental controls features and focus more on sharing logins and passwords instead. With operating systems and devices, this means is that both the parent and the child can log in with full access to everything. The teenager can now manage their own software, but at the same time is aware the parent can see what has been installed. Around the age of 15 or 16, I would be careful with browser history checking; at some point you just have to hand over trust. However, there may be cases where it is appropriate to occasionally check your child's history, for example, where there are concerns about eating disorders or unwanted communications from strangers. In such cases, I would always try to be transparent about what you are able to do and see and why you might check.
Related to this last point, I would also, for a time, share login information to online platforms and social media between you and child. This is not for meticulously policing your child's interactions, but spotting any worrisome interactions or notifications early on may help start discussions about what is appropriate and what is not. My youngest now wants access to Pinterest for crafting videos; I think we will allow it, but with a parent controlled email account. An added benefit to this approach is that if passwords are forgotten or lost, I will have a backup of these in my own password manager.
I have not devoted enough here on online safety. This is a topic that needs to be covered in a separate article. However, using some of the strategies mentioned above could help open up some of those important discussions, and allow teenagers to move towards adulthood in more healthy ways. In that short stretch of time we have between the ages of 14 and 18 we can only do our best to have a positive impact and be good listeners.
Finally, it's never a bad idea to just sit with your child once a while during their screen time and ask them what they are up to to show interest. I have found my kids enjoy telling me about their silly game or interesting video, and it keeps their screen use visible in a more relaxed way.
While I argue for removing parental controls and auto-shut down mechanisms when children become teenagers, the screen discussions in the evenings sometimes do become a bit repetitive. Without parental controls, you need to be vigilant and aware of the clock, and you do somehow get drawn into negotiations about why the 'five extra minutes' are so important. Without automated checks, there will be times where you will miss things or forget to stay on top of your child's online lives.
Browser history checking and social media monitoring is a tricky issue. You have to let children take on responsibility at some point, but if there are genuine concerns, such as bullying, predatory behaviour or unhealthy trends, parent should reserve the right to check. The best outcome is having a relationship where your child feels comfortable sharing online experiences with you, no matter how threatening or embarrassing.
Current use and looking ahead
We use the admin rights and shared logins approach, and will do that up to the age of 16. After that may be an appropriate time to hand over these rights to your teenager, as they get ready for adult life.
We only use traditional parental controls with gaming platforms, and we continue to block all the online stores.
The no-screens-in-the-bedroom rule continues to be in effect, and will be until our children leave the home. I find it the most effective strategy available to parents, and my oldest was positive about that rule, looking back.
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Linux does not have any built-in parental controls, nor do I know of any software packages that do this effectively.↩