March 10, 2008
Controlling to Protect?

As a 29-year-old with no kids, I might not be the best qualified person to talk about parental controls on computers: I'm not by any means a "digital native," (not that anyone really is), nor am I a parent, so I can only imagine the concerns and difficulty of bringing up a child in this networked world.

But, a couple of days ago, I read 12 Tools to Keep Kids Safe Online on PC Magazine, and it made me think of the issues of control (and safety) that participatory culture and new technologies have brought to the fore. Although this issue has been discussed at length in, around, and outside the Consortium, it is yet to be close to resolved.

The PC Magazine article discusses the latest innovations in software enabled remote child supervision. The main conflicts that these tools attempt to solve are time management, how much time your child is online or at the computer, and navigation control, blocking inappropriate sites or being informed when the child attempts to gain access to these sites.

When it comes down to it, the majority of "child safety" programs are geared towards remotely controlling what children do and invading their online privacy. With SnoopStick, you could "monitor your children's Internet use, IM conversations, and e-mail correspondence. It includes a modicum of parental control (time scheduling, blocked sites) and lets you shut down your kids' system remotely."

Although it sounds like tech-savvy version of sneaking into a kid's room to read their diary, the consequences that this retrieval of agency could are quite destructive.

In an effort to understand this from one parent's perspective, I asked Jude Glaubman, my roommate and mother of 14 year-old Rosa, how she dealt with these everyday concerns. She considers that automatically limiting her explorations in the online world would constrain her learning process; she'd rather help her through the development of her own sense of self, judgment, and appropriateness. "You don't want to limit the her explorations of the world because of hysteria. Instead, I have the responsibility of protecting her in the process without infantilizing or controlling her."

For Jude, this is also about helping Rosa negotiate the tension that arises between participating in a public arena (online) while physically being in a private space. "I ask her to show me things. What do you think about posting? Helping her see how it will be perceived from another point of view."

Jude also makes sure that Rosa knows what the potential dangers are and that she has the ability to take care of herself. In fact, this part of parenting isn't much different to preparing her for independence in the 'real' world.

It has always been hard for parents to let their children wonder into worlds that they are not necessarily part of. And fear mongering has become an ubiquitous practice out of which many are making a pretty penny out of parents concerns. But it is through their independence and sense of self in these explorations that children and young adults acquire the necessary skills to participate in today's convergence culture.

PC Magazine's article proposes that "if you want to secretly monitor every little thing they [your children] do on the computer, PC Pandora will definitely do the job" but, considering the consequences, is this a box that we really want to open?

For more on some of these issues, see Sam Ford's interview with Parry Aftab from last August.