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Parental control apps: a parent's dream or a privacy nightmare?

Whether you’re meeting up with mates, checking on the kids or figuring out when to put in dinner, we’ve all been in a position at one time or another where we need to know where someone else is. Thanks to technology, we’re now able to know where everyone is all of the time - and we’re able to do it with our smartphones. We’ve been finding out about parental control apps, and the ethical minefield around them.

What is a parental control app?

Widely speaking, a parental control app is a kind of surveillance app. A surveillance app is an application you can install on your smartphone which provides you with information on another separate device. You can get surveillance apps for your home so you can access security cameras, surveillance apps for your baby monitor, and surveillance apps for smartphones which allow you to access information on another person’s mobile. 

Parental control apps specifically are applications which link your mobile device up with another, or a number of others. You can share your location with someone else, you can access or even control which apps are being used by another person - on some parental control apps you can even view another person’s messages and call logs.

The good, the bad and the ugly

A number of these applications are used by parents or carers who want to know what content is being accessed by their child or dependent on the internet. They’re definitely useful in censoring certain websites - you can ban domain names or content that you feel is unsuitable for children. Whereas a lot of services require age verification in order to access their sites and applications, some don’t. Parental control apps can be an effective way to manage the website and applications that children have access to.

However, these applications can also be used in a negative way. Accessing messages and call logs, whilst possible, isn’t always morally justified. Installing parental control apps on children or dependent’s devices can leave them feeling as if they have little privacy. This is often true for older teenagers, and the more intrusive parental control apps where messages can be read in real time, location is constantly shared, and the parent or carer can see almost everything occurring on the device.

To install, or not to install?

The main issue is that technology progresses incredibly quickly. Our smartphones and applications are advancing at a rapid rate, and often the law is lagging behind. Ultimately, if your child or dependent is 18 years of age or older, installing a parental control app without their consent could mean you were in breach of the Data Protection Act. This is regardless of whether you purchased the smartphone or device, or make payments towards the smartphone or device. If consent is obtained through pressure or coercion, this could be identified as abusive under UK law.

Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to keep your children completely safe from all the content online. Young people are now growing up in a world of technology - and are often far more capable at using it than their parents! One of the best things to do is to start talking to your children or dependents about the internet. The NSPCC have some great resources for starting this conversation

An open avenue of communication is often the best way to allow your child to maintain their privacy. If you do choose to install a parental control app, or add certain restrictions, explain to your children why these restrictions are in place, and be ready to answer any questions. 

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