Google are helping parents to become their kids’ digital overlords

(Originally written March 17, 2017)

Google have a longstanding and well-deserved reputation for industrial-scale data gathering, both for their own work and for aiding various government agencies. Yet last Wednesday, they went one step further in helping parents to get in on the snooping action, by releasing an app that enables Mom and Pop to monitor and control the digital activities of their children. The Mountain View firm launched Family Link, a piece of software that enables doting parents to essentially take control of their kids’ phones.

With the application, mothers and fathers in the US can approve or block apps their children try to download from the Google Play Store, they can check how much time their kids spend with different software, and they can set hours for when the linked Android device of their child will be operable. In launching such a product, Google have joined the ranks of SecureTeen, Net Nanny and all the other apps on the market that enable parents to discreetly keep a leash around the necks of their progeny. Yet rather than simply helping parents to ensure that their kids stay out of harm’s way, it’s likely that such a restrictive app will actually make children and their parents worse off.

For one, there’s the simple fact that, in allowing them to physically prevent their kids from accessing apps and even their phones, the Family Link’s use implies that parents won’t be using a parenting approach that puts discussion and reasoning with kids at the forefront. Instead of interactively teaching sons and daughters about how to navigate the digital world of apps and downloads, Family Link appears to encourage parents to merely dictate to their offspring what they can and cannot do online. In other words, it threatens an authoritarian parent-child dynamic in which children aren’t trusted to think for themselves, and in which they become the passive receivers of parental instructions, without any validation of their own autonomy.

By denying child autonomy, Family Link also risks becoming a big source of friction between parent and child. For example, in an influential 2005 survey of parental styles in Chile, the US and the Philippines, researchers from Oberlin College discovered that “the highest level of conflict [between parents and children] was reported around issues that adolescents felt their parents did not have legitimate authority over but that adolescents felt obliged to obey.” This is important because, beyond its technical functionality, what the Family Link achieves above anything else is an absolute “obligation to obey,” since children whose phones are linked to the app will have no capability whatsoever to avoid their parents’ control. Added to this, it’s probable that many children will regard such control as arising from illegitimate authority, since their smartphones have been given to them as their personal property. As such, they’re likely to be emotionally attached to their phones, as is the case with adults, and will therefore view any curtailment of their ability to use their devices as a personal violation.

Admittedly, the Family Link can be used in whichever way a parent chooses, with mothers and fathers having the option not to impose any time limits on a phone’s use or on the downloading of apps. Still, it raises the unsettling possibility of parental authoritarianism, which can skew a child’s emotional well-being and her later development. This was borne out by a 2014 survey published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, in which Japanese researchers found that “authoritarian parenting styles worsened respondents’ later mental health, including symptomatic problems, risk to self and others, life functioning, and psychological well-being.” In particular, the paper revealed that authoritarian parents – generally defined as those who set “strict standards” without sufficient explanation or rational deliberation – weakened their offspring’s self-esteem and independence.

And while Google’s new app obviously won’t create authoritarian parents on its own, it seems expressly designed to allow already authoritarian mothers and fathers to institute the aforementioned “strict standards” in the digital realm, where their children had perhaps benefitted from a relative degree of freedom. And again, while there’s nothing inherent to Family Link that says a mother won’t rationally explain to her children why she’s controlling their phones, its very existence betrays how parents will be using the power of technology as the ultimate guarantor of their children’s behaviour, rather than the power of reasoning, discussion and healthier parenting styles. What’s more, if Family Link proves a success and sets a precedent for tech being used to control what children can and cannot do online, then the trend it sets in motion could have long-term effects on the ability of young people to negotiate risks for themselves.

In fact, that trend may already be upon us, at least insofar as there are already a wealth of apps on the market parents can use to keep tabs on their children. There’s Net Nanny, for instance, which works pretty much like Family Link, although it’s available on iOS as well as Android. Better yet, there’s also TeenSafe, which doesn’t simply allow parents to see virtually everything their kids have been doing on their phones, but also allows them to use GPS to track where exactly little Jane and John have been going IRL.

With the emergence of such apps, there arises the real risk that for everything concerned parents gain in terms of peace of mind, they’ll potentially lose in trust. And not only would trust be loss if a child finds out that she’s being watched from afar, but it’s likely that strict, unjustified limits on what they can do online may lower their sense of independence and freedom. This is why, if they end up using Family Link, parents should at least explain to their kids why they’re doing so, since otherwise they’d risk damaging the ability of their kids to rationalize and make judgments for themselves. And in a world where this ability is needed more than ever, this may ironically make them less safe.

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