Parents Talk Back

When parents start chatting about their tween or teenage children at a party, the conversation invariably turns to their anxiety about their child’s devices. So, it was a mother I met at a baby shower who told me about a fairly new app she was planning to use to keep on top of her teen’s digital life.

There are divergent schools of thought on monitoring apps: One group believes that keeping close tabs on their children’s every online move is a creepy invasion of privacy, and prefers to teach their children to independently make good choices. On the other end, there are parents who believe that children lack the emotional maturity and self-regulation to make good decisions all the time with technology, and require supervision until they are older and better equipped to control their impulses.

But keeping track of a child’s (or children’s) entire daily digital communication can seem like an overwhelming full-time job. Not to mention, there are secret codes and hidden apps that can be used to hide or disguise inappropriate content on a child’s phone.

In between these groups are parents who try to keep open lines of dialogue, keep a list of their child’s passwords and do random spot-checks on their devices.

There isn’t much good data on how many parents fall into each of these categories, although anecdotally, it seems to be about half who try to keep some kind of monitoring, even if just spot-checks, and half who are pretty hands-off.

This is where an app called Bark offers a different type of solution. It’s a subscription-based app ($9 a month for a family) that uses algorithms to scan a child’s phone for potentially harmful activity from bullying to sexting to mental health crises. When something is spotted through these filters, the parent gets an alert with the flagged content and advice on how to handle it with their child.

On one hand, it affords a child far more privacy, since all of their communication is not being watched or reported to a parent. Yet, it allows some measure of a safety net for parents.

Brian Bason, CEO of Bark, launched the company in February of 2016.

“Teens don’t understand the permanency of their online activities and the downstream effects they can have,” he said. Among their subscribers, 54 percent of kids have at least one issue per month that generates an alert for a parent to review. The vast majority of those parents, 80 percent, were completely unaware of the issue until they received an alert.

In some cases, they have been alerted about 10-year-old boys trying to download the dating app Tinder. But others have been more serious. There have been about two dozen situations in which a parent was alerted about a potentially suicidal child, Bason said. He said they see a large amount of cyberbullying, violence, threats and drug use, along with mental health concerns.

While the app can scan content over 20 different platforms on a child’s phone, there are things that can slip through the cracks. For example, not all “snaps” sent via Snapchat can be filtered. On Android phones, messages sent using WhatsApp cannot be filtered. On an iOS device, the content is captured when the device is connected and backed up to iCloud. On Android, the app is installed on both the parent’s and child’s phones.

While there are still some loopholes and the technology is evolving, this will help those parents who believe something is better than nothing. Ideally, this sort of careful monitoring service should be provided as an option to all cellphone subscribers through the monthly charges and fees that cellphone providers already charge.

For many parents, a child’s constant connectivity provokes a fear similar to when an adolescent starts driving, but unlike that rite of passage, there is no formal “digital citizenship exam” or learner’s permit that comes with the technology that connects them to the world and their friends. And yet, just like the potential risks that come with driving, there’s a legitimate worry that a foolish mistake could derail a child’s life.

Regardless of whether a parent is pro-monitoring, anti- or somewhere in between, it’s a relief that tech companies are continuing to find ways to help parents keep kids safer online.

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