A New Approach to Internet Safety Apps Helps Teens Regulate Their Own Online Activity

By Lori Cameron
Published 07/27/2018
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Cyberbullying, pornography, sexting, Internet addiction—teens can stumble into serious digital trouble, and it’s got parents worried.

But many popular safety apps fail to help. Some are so wonky that they block good content as well as bad. Others allow excessive invasion of privacy, which teens resent.

Now, experts say there is a better way to keep your teens safe while empowering them to make good decisions online.

“By taking a more ‘teen-centric’ instead of a ‘parent-centric’ approach to adolescent online safety, researchers and designers can help teens foster a stronger sense of personal agency for self-regulating their own online behaviors and managing online risks,” says Pamela Wisniewski, author of “The Privacy Paradox of Adolescent Online Safety,” in the March/April 2018 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy. (Login may be required for full text.)

Wisniewski suggests “a paradigm shift” that empowers teens to be “agents of their own online safety by teaching them how to self-regulate their online experiences.”

Understanding the privacy paradox

When parents regulate online behavior, kids end up doing two unhealthy things—sharing too much with peers and strangers, and trying to hide it all from their parents.

Experts call this the “privacy paradox.” Teens want privacy, but they also want to share every tiny detail of their lives with the world.

“On one hand, we are telling teens that they need to care about their online privacy to stay safe, and on the other, we are taking their privacy away for the sake of their online safety. This catch-22 poses a ‘new’ privacy paradox for our youth that needs to be addressed when designing future technologies to protect teens from online risks,” says Wisniewski.

Comparing parent-centric vs. teen-centric safety apps

A teen-centric approach to developing safety apps doesn’t leave parents out altogether.

The chart below illustrates the Teen Online Safety Strategies (TOSS) framework, developed by Wisniewski and her team, that compares a parent-centric safety strategy with a teen-centric strategy.

The point at which the strategies converge (shown in pink) occurs when the teen needs help from a parent in handling a negative online experience.

Conceptual framework of Teen Online Safety Strategies (TOSS)
Conceptual framework of Teen Online Safety Strategies (TOSS)

Teens are empowered when they recognize their own risky behavior and ask their parents for help. They also grow more confident in their ability to recognize unhealthy online interactions.

“Risk coping is a component of self-regulation that occurs after one encounters a stressful situation, which involves addressing a problem in a way that mitigates harm. Because risk coping is influenced by teens’ own appraisals of online risk as well as that of their parents’, the TOSS framework makes an explicit association between active parental mediation and teen risk coping,” says Wisniewski.

Analyzing the effectiveness of safety apps

Wisniewski and her team studied 75 mobile apps that promote online safety and found that 89 percent of them used a parent-centric strategy.

“Many of the apps were extremely privacy invasive, providing parents granular access to monitor and restrict teens’ intimate online interactions with others, including browsing history, the apps installed on their phones, and the text messages teens sent and received,” says Wisniewski.

The graph below illustrates the shortage of apps designed to give teens the opportunity to regulate their own online experiences.

Parent versus teen features within mobile online safety apps
Parent versus teen features within mobile online safety apps

In a follow-up study, Wisniewski and her team analyzed 736 reviews of the parent-centric apps and found several nuggets shared by some very frustrated teens:

“It doesn’t just protect you from the porn and stuff, it protects you from the whole internet!! It wouldn’t let me look up puppies!…If I can give it less than a star I would!!” —One Star rating, Net Nanny for Android, 2014

“Fantastic. Now now my mom is stalking me. I have nothing to hide. You can always just ask to go through my phone. Too invasive and down right disrespectful. Thanks for the trust, mom.” —One Star rating, MamaBear Family Safety, 2014

“Seriously, if you love your kids at all, why don’t you try communicating with them instead of buying spyware. What’s wrong with you all? And you say we’re the generation with communication problems.” —One Star rating, SecureTeen Parental Control, 2016

In contrast, the kids found teen-centric apps afforded them more agency, improved relationships with parents, and helped them control unhealthy or addictive behaviors.

Summary of research findings align with TOSS dimensions for parental control
Summary of research findings shows how the reasons teens and younger children disliked these apps align directly with the TOSS dimensions for parental control

After their research, Wisniewski and her team compiled a set of recommendations to improve the next generation of online safety apps that will meet parents’ desire to keep their children safe and teens’ desire to uphold personal privacy:

  • Empower teens as end users – Prompting teens to use mobile online safety apps themselves increases their sense of personal autonomy and control.
  • Use a teen-centric approach to design – Teens likely prefer “personal assistant”–type features that assist them in changing unhealthy behaviors without parental intervention. These features could “nudge” them whenever an inappropriate behavior is detected.
  • Design for safety with privacy in mind – For example, an app may provide parents a summary of who their teen is engaging with via their mobile device and how often, as opposed to divulging the content of every conversation.
  • Help teens communicate with their parents – Teens can negotiate with their parents about their online activity. For instance, app design could incorporate a reward system that allows teens to get extra screen time if they meet certain criteria specified by their parents.

Ultimately, it’s about giving teens the skills they will need to make good, independent decisions as adults.

“We call for new design practices that are more teen-centric and place value on online safety as an integral part of their adolescent and developmental growth, teaching teens the skills and giving them to confidence to engage safely and smartly with others through the Internet,” says Wisniewski.

Research related to online safety in the Computer Society Digital Library

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About Lori Cameron

Lori Cameron is a Senior Writer for the IEEE Computer Society and currently writes regular features for Computer magazine, Computing Edge, and the Computing Now and Magazine Roundup websites. Contact her at l.cameron@computer.org. Follow her on LinkedIn.