Anthony Kelly/Flickr (CC-BY)

Having an open dialogue with your kids is still the best method to keep them safe online.

Preliminary research from the University of Central Florida suggests parental control apps on smartphones have a negative impact on parent-child relationships and have less success protecting kids from the dangers of the internet, according to Gizmodo.

For the first part of their study, researchers first over 200 pairs of parents and teens (ages 13 to 17) online; about half of the parents said they at least sometimes used parental control apps—like FamilyTime, Qustodio, and PhoneSheriff, which limit screen time, block certain websites, and track their child’s online activity.  

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that parents that opt to use one of these apps were more likely to be strict and unwilling to listen to their kids. The teens surveyed, however, were more likely to report getting exposed to unwanted explicit content, online harassment, and problems with other kids—probably because they knew their parents would see the content regardless.

“The takeaway here is that parents should not treat parental control apps as a magic bullet to keep their teens safe online,” senior author Pamela Wisniewski, an assistant professor of engineering and computer science at UCF, told Gizmodo.

To build on their original research, the researchers conducted a second study where they analyzed 736 online reviews left by parents and kids on 37 different parental control apps. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, parents left mostly positive reviews whereas the kids did not.

“This app will cause trust issues with your kids. Ever since my dad installed this app, he and I have grown farther apart,” a 2015 one-star review of the SecureTeen Parental Control app said. “If he doesn’t trust me enough to use my phone, then why should I trust him?”

The drawback of the study was that it couldn’t explain why these apps failed at protecting kids from online risks. Wisniewski suggested it might be because parents rely on these apps to fully monitor their kids, rather than using them as an additional tool after having fact-to-face conversations about the internet dangers and consequences with their kids.

“If they use the apps as a tool to supplement positive parenting practices, not to take the place of them, then these apps could be beneficial,” she said. “However, they should not be used as a ‘set it and forget it’ solution because they are imperfect and cannot replace talking with our children and teaching them how to engage with others online meaningfully and safely.”

According to the Pew Research Center, however, it looks like parents generally understand the importance of communicating with their kids about the internet. While a 2016 study found that only 16 percent of parents use an app to monitor their kids’ phones, a whopping 94 percent said they have talked with their teen about what is appropriate for them to share online and 95 percent said they have talked with their teen about appropriate content for them to view online.

The UCF studies will be presented in April at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems held in Montreal, Canada.

Tess Cagle

Tess Cagle

Tess Cagle is a reporter who focuses on politics, lifestyle, and streaming entertainment. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman, Damn Joan, and Community Impact Newspaper. She’s also a portrait, events, and live music photographer in Central Texas.