June 20, 2024

Kids in the Cage: Why Parental Control Systems Should Consider the Child’s Needs

What parental control applications do, how effective they are, and how they may evolve.

In the early 2000s, as Internet access became global, apps for monitoring and controlling children’s online activity started gaining popularity. Over time, these solutions got adapted to the changes in digital technology and the needs of children and parents. Today we’ll talk about what the existing children’s cybersecurity systems can offer, how efficient they are and how the needs of users of such solutions are changing.

Parental Control: from Blocking TV Channels to Location Monitoring

The parental control concept emerged before the Internet and was initially associated with television. Back in the 80s of the last century, functions for blocking certain channels began to emerge for TVs and set-top boxes. This gave parents the opportunity to protect their children from content that they deemed unsafe.

With the Internet spreading, it became clear that control systems for online content were no less necessary than for TV content. The apps blocking the websites allegedly unsafe for children became the solution. Penetration of the first computers, followed by smartphones, into our lives led to the fact that children started spending more and more time in the digital world. The answer to this problem is the functions of limiting the time of use of the entire device or individual apps.

The subsequent development of parental control apps brought a number of additional functions, such as notifications to parents in case of an attempt of accessing forbidden websites, ability to use the solution directly on a PC, tablet and smartphone, remote control of devices, for example, turning off the silent mode or viewing battery charge, analytics of the content consumed by the child, monitoring the child’s current location and sending notifications, should the child unexpectedly leave the area designated by the parent.

Parental Control Lacking Flexibility

In 2023, a scientific paper was published, where the authors tried to find an answer to the question of actual efficiency of the existing parental control apps. To this end, they analyzed 40 studies on this matter and summarized their findings. The results were as follows:

  • 17 studies note that the use of parental control leads to positive results — reduced online risks, increased time management skills of a child, ability to timely detect the moments when the child needs help, etc.

  • 12 studies concluded that parental control is inefficient: it is either easily circumvented or does not provide the expected level of security.

  • The authors of 6 studies indicate that the use of parental control leads to unwanted restrictions. For example, to blocking educational content, hindering the digital skill development or limiting the child’s socialization.

  • Finally, in 8 studies, the authors concluded that the use of parental control can have negative consequences, such as lead to conflict and trust issues within the family.

There is no clear answer to the question of the parental control efficiency. However, the dispersion of results shows that the existing child safety solutions are not coping with their tasks well enough. Therefore, it is necessary to continue to look for new approaches to creating more efficient parental control systems that would reliably protect children from harmful influence online, yet without creating unnecessary restrictions, conflicts or developmental issues.

What do parents want for their children’s online safety?

In order to create more balanced child online safety systems, it is important to understand the user needs first. Therefore, we conducted a study in which we interviewed parents of children aged 4 to 14. The survey involved 371 people across the country. It turned out that 70% of respondents are already taking certain measures to protect the digital life of their children, another 23% are planning to start doing this and only 7% do not see the need for this.

As many as 43% of parents have already installed an app on their child’s smartphone to filter content and limit the time of use. Another 35% are going to install such an app, while those who do not see the need for this are in the minority yet again, as they represent only 22% of those surveyed.

To the already standard fears that a child may encounter inappropriate content on the Internet or spend too much time online, modern parents have added new concerns with social aspects. The “hot five” parental fears are set out below:

  • 78% of parents are afraid that attackers can gain their child’s trust through social media and games.

  • 77% are afraid that their child might see something on the Internet that could affect his or her psyche negatively.

  • 76% are worried that their child will spend too much time on the phone to the detriment of their development.

  • 64% are afraid that scammers will call their child.

  • 63% are concerned that a child’s personal data (including images) will be used online.

The fears are reasonable: children often become victims of online scammers. At the end of 2023, a 12-year-old schoolgirl who was home alone received a call from a stranger who said that her grandmother had been hit by a car and 600 thousand rubles were urgently required for treatment. Following the instructions given by the delinquents, the girl found money in the apartment, wrapped it in a bed sheet and handed it to the courier.

A similar incident happened in Salekhard, but the situation there led to the kidnapping of a child: the delinquents called a ten-year-old girl, told her that her parents had been in an car accident and then persuaded her to get into a taxi sent for her. Afterwards, the criminals called the parents and reported the kidnapping of the child. The girl was found.

In the spring of 2024, online scammers persuaded an 11-year-old girl to send her grandmother’s bank details under the pretext of drawing game currency. After this, the delinquents not only successfully stole 100 thousand rubles from the account, but also tried to take a loan for another 500 thousand rubles.

Also, a scheme where teenagers are used for “dropping” is gaining popularity. Within this scheme, teenagers issue bank cards in their name and provide the criminals with their details. Afterwards, money starts flowing to their account, yet, the teenagers have to send this money to wherever they are told, while leaving themselves a small portion for the services. This money may be associated with various shady transactions, such as drug trafficking, weapons, etc. As a result, the child becomes an accomplice in the crime.

Future of Parental Control Apps

The main focus of parental control solutions shall shift from static Internet content filtering towards protection against social threats: cyberbullying (the danger of which parents often underestimate), fraud and other dangerous communication.

Children's online safety apps must also learn better data protection and leak prevention. A further increase in cross-platform parental control is likely, that is, towards integration with various smart devices, primarily Smart TV.

But most importantly, parental control solutions will have to find the right balance between protecting children from harmful online influence and the restrictions they impose that can lead to family conflicts and child development issues.

Arseny Epov, Head of the Membrana Kids developed product says: “On the one hand, there is a request declared by parents that their child’s stay online is safe. However, on the other hand, there is a request declared by children for this stay to be interesting. Within Membrana Kids, we are trying to find this balance: so that when using our app, the parent understands that his or her child is safe, while the child understands that he or she has freedom, that he or she is free to make his or her own decisions. What we are trying to achieve: so that a child, like a little explorer, can calmly surf the Internet, learn something new, but at the same time this adventure is safe for the child and corresponds to his or her age and level of development.”