Screen controls: it’s never OK to monitor your kids’ viewing habits | Valerie Fahy

It’s not that I don’t love my kids, but getting kids to spend hours on screens for increasingly elaborate reasons is more stressful than it ever has been. Sometimes you have no choice, and you and your children live this fight so many times a year that you’ve become like rubberneckers. But other times there is a better way, and it’s time to commit to solving the problem.

Recently, the time to do something about it came fast and furious. Like, six weeks ago. Through the app store, you can find apps and games that screen children for identifying inappropriate images. Make sure that you read up and pick one that works well for your kid and the family – and that is the easy part. But what about the problem that you are facing, which is the unfathomable requirement to screen your kids for these specific features in any given app? First, stop spending precious hours and billing cycles working on reducing screen time for your children.

App stores have saved all of us from the tyranny of cute pets and cute animations. But apps have now come to be commoditized, whether by being free or by being offered to you for a low, low price. There are many apps that are delightful but not cost-effective (have you ever seen a dollar sign from a mobile game developer?), such as free games with in-app purchasing, or free games with hard goods (toys) or not-quite-a-game-at-all free games with easy purchases.

In order to continue this business model and stay on top of the pack, there has to be something special for which consumers will pay. One would think that a feature like this – one that allows you to watch your kid for suggestive or inappropriate images in an app that you have given your trust to – would be the way to go.

As with many of these technical moves, some will say that they have discovered something new. This is progress, but it doesn’t mean anything for me. I don’t accept any secret services monitoring my child. So I don’t get upset about how strict screen restrictions may be for children using certain apps. I know my kid well and if he is accessing an app in the right way, it shouldn’t matter how secure it is; if you make it difficult for them to do what they want, they will turn to elsewhere.

Perhaps I should get offended. Perhaps there is something profoundly indecent in having a feeding tube through a toilet (“Asr” is a German word for “family”) being marketed to kids of the age range of 13 and up. But I understand it. I’m a parent with two kids, aged 10 and 13. I try to observe their habits and sometimes they make even bigger mistakes than I did. I don’t deny that it is important that parents do not choose what apps to use on their kids. But that is never going to happen.

When there is a gradual change in the market, like in the 1970s, we demand protections. If parents keep switching from smartphone to smartphone, their kids become accustomed to the new and different features of each phone, so they are stuck with the features. And soon we get into meaningless fights over what is appropriate and what is not. “What is acceptable is acceptable!” we tell ourselves. The result is that many people who care about their children are opposed to some of the more radical solutions, but are in a state of procrastination about how to protect them.

In my experience, the solution is not to block all apps. A prohibition is great, but ultimately you will never stop your kids from looking at these apps. We must start thinking about protecting a “short cut” – the ability to access apps, videos and music – through gaming settings that the kids can use to separate certain categories of apps from the more, well, “relaxing” sorts.

My 15-year-old and my 12-year-old seem to enjoy the task, so it’s definitely worth getting started. And I’m running back and forth to the App Store everyday to ensure that that process is as easy as possible. It may take some time to figure it out, but it’s better than going straight to the death panels to decide when they can play Angry Birds.

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