Rethinking Online Safety Apps

Father And Son Using Laptop At Home
Father And Son Using Laptop At Home

 

After spending last year finishing my book, I am about to launch a very busy spring and summer of public talks and professional presentations about both adolescent cybersex and adult sexual addiction.  In preparation, I have again dug into the research to see what is new since I published my book, The New Age of Sex Education:  How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography in the digital age.  Dr. Pamela Wisniewski, now at the University of Central Florida, has continued her research (started at Penn State) on online safety.  She is doing great work and the world outside of academia needs to know about it!

Dr. Wisniewski recently presented some of her work at an ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) conference where she presented her TOSS model of mobile online safety.  She presented data on an analysis of 75 Android apps that promote teen online safety.  Her goal in doing this study was to see what these apps did and how they fit into her TOSS model.   Toss stands for Teen Online Safety Strategies.  Dr. Wisniewski and her colleagues created this model to frame and discuss the disparity between parental control and teen self-regulation.  This model looks at how parents try to regulate their child’s online safety and what teens need to learn to do it for themselves.

From the perspective of a parent, the model identifies three strategies that parents use to monitor teens online activity.  Monitoring is a strategy in which parents passively monitor their child’s online activity.  Restriction involves placing rules and limits on the teen’s online activity.  Both strategies do not involve discussing the topic with the child.  The third strategy is Active Mediation.  This involves discussions between parents and teens regarding online activities and how they will be handled.

The TOSS model also stresses Teen Self-Regulation.  This too falls into three categories.  These are skills that teens need to learn, both to deal with the digital world and in life in general.  The first skill is Self-Monitoring, which is a teens awareness of their motivations and actions that comes through self-observation.  The second is impulse control.  Teens need to learn to inhibit their short-term desires in favor of long term consequences.  The final issue is that of risk-coping.  Teens are exposed to risk all the time and they need to learn how to manage a negative event once it has happened.

This study found that nearly all the app features, (89%), were targeted at parents and only 11% at teens.  Monitoring and Restriction were supported by most the online safety apps.  Education on the topic was only supported by 2% of the apps and active parental mediation was only supported by less than 1% of the apps.  The news was not any better for teen coping strategies.  At most, 4% of the apps supported any teen self-regulation, self-monitoring or impulse control features.

When the researchers looked at what values were supported by the apps, they found that parental authority and teen safety were valued over teen autonomy and personal privacy.  They also found that parental control through invasion of privacy and restrictions was valued over open communication with teens.  Finally, they found that, for teens, asking for help was valued over trying to actively cope.

If you are a parent concerned about your child’s online safety, you might say “so what.”  I want to know that my child is safe online so I restrict their access to things.  Enough said.  Maybe not.

The research on resilience shows us that teens develop effective coping mechanisms to protect themselves online when they are exposed to some level of risk.  When we use strategies that only enforce transparency and obedience in teens, we do not allow them to learn coping and self-regulation.

The most effective strategy remains that of parental active mediation.  Parents and teens NEED to have discussions about online safety.  This does not mean that a parent cannot use an app that restricts or monitors.  It means that the parent and the child talk about the risks of being online, including pornography use, sexting, cyberbullying etc.  Then they decide together how best to manage the environment in a way that fits with their family values.

As a parent, you will not always be there to shield your child from online risk.  We need to foster the appropriate TOSS skills in teens (and younger children) to help ensure that they can navigate the online world in a healthy manner even when you are not around.

 

Wisniewski, Ghosh, Zu, Rosson & Carroll.  (2017).  Parental Control vs. Teen Self-Regulation:  Is there a middle ground for mobile online safety?  Presented at CSCW ’17 in Portland, OR 2/25 0 3/1/17

For more information on Dr. Weeks please go to Sexual Addiction Treatment Services.

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