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"What is wrong with our reliance on "parental controls"? - The first of two installments

As the world celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Internet, this matured phenomenon is under investigation for its effects on children world-wide. The Internet has become more than a delivery vehicle of content but an ever-growing fleet of vehicles targeting vulnerable and unprotected minors. Even though real-life affects children with incomparably more immediate and direct threats to their existence, our concerns over the minor's exposure to the Internet are mounting.

What should be done to protect our children? and how to accomplish this? were among the main issues raised and discussed at the 6th International Internet Forum in Wuzhen, China in October of 2019 I had the privilege to join a prestigious Panel of experts and authorities exploring these concerns. Many distinguished speakers approached the challenge of “minors on the Internet” by advocating and stressing the role of “parental controls” and suggesting means of making them more efficient. In what follows, I shall explore the odd reality of this approach in the U.S. and suggest why we need to question our reliance on ‘parents’ as the main platform of delivering protection and safety to the Internet-fairing “minors”.

The second installment will address an alternative direction advanced by some panel speakers, as a global approach to place responsibility for Internet “safety” upon the Internet industry. Envisioning the Internet as a technological octopus whose corporate tentacles reaching far and deep into every strata of every country is seen as a compelling alternative to reliance on parents and families. Given the absence of legal enforcement of parental duties, it seems obvious, desirable, and possible to make internet providers legally responsible for the safety of their minor users.

As far as the United States is concerned, it seems unlikely that either approach to prevent delivery of harm to minors will deliver safety in a consistent, efficient, and socially acceptable way. Let us first identify the main directions of efforts in the United deal with Internet as a source of harm to minors.

In the past five decades as the ever-widening Internet access was fueling the fastest growing crime wave, online harm became very real for all demographics. What made “minors” stand apart as a class of targets and victims that deserved special protection? The key answer is found in the universal and traditional view of “minors” as a duality; due to their limitations and incompetence, until a newborn reaches the age of majority, it belongs to both “vulnerable” and “dangerous” classes of actors. Consequently, all societies rely upon and require “parental supervision’ and “controls” to prevent them from causing and experiencing ‘harm’ within a legally defined time-frame.

The other answer is found in the unprecedented inflow of minors empowered by their access to the Internet. By the first decade of this Century over 45 million children (ages 10 through 17) in the United States were using the Internet. Since then, as the numbers of under-age Internet users in America has nearly doubled, they are consistently described by authorities and media as "the fastest-growing pool of victims."

According to the San Diego County District Attorney Task Force, "one in five minors in this age group has been sexually solicited; one in four has encountered unwanted pornography while close to 60% of teens have received an e-mail or instant message from a stranger and half have communicated back.”

American response to this sobering statistics, including media coverage of specific incidents, (e.g. minors cyber-lured from their families, children driven to suicide by swarms of online bullies, etc.) has taken several directions: it engages our criminal justice system, stimulates a network of communal organizations, obligates our educational institutions, and produces a plethora of technological solutions. The following brief overview is provided to recognize why in spite of these developments, American reliance on “parental controls” becomes increasingly ineffective yet remains the key mechanism of “minors” protection and safety.

The US Congress took specific measures to address ‘minors’ online safety. It funded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to establish a Cybertip hotline (1-800-THE-LOST). The FBI expanded its pre-internet focus on abductions and sexual exploitation of minors, to include investigation and prosecution of Internet enabled strategies of cyber perpetrators.

The ‘criminal format’ of protection by forces of ”law and order” expanded greatly, as states, counties and cities set up designated police units to respond to cybercrime. When it comes to minors, police focus is on three or four main online threats: sexual abuse, child labor, human trafficking and, lately, the bullying phenomenon. Unlike authorities in other countries, US agencies remain constrained in their response by constitutional guarantees of free speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly extending to all Americans, including minors. This explains why harm to minors other than criminal activities has not been systemically prevented or responded to by the state’s institutions of “law and order” leaving many concerned parents without help from authorities and police. Even in matters that police forces were authorized to investigate and prosecute, help remains limited. Actual response to family complaints of Internet crime is defined by its “seriousness”, by available resources and by practical complexities, such as personnel training and collection and receipt of evidence.

American public institutions (schools, collages, libraries etc.) where children spend a significant part of their day are believed to be a key line of defense against the challenges of minors access to the Internet. How did they manage this task is highly indicative of why parental controls remain our best hope. Teaching computer skills and providing Internet access to students of all ages is now an integral and required part of their education. As Internet portable devices appeared, they were seen as an educational imperative not only to the well-to-do families but to the School District where I live. In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) bought 43,261 Apple iPads loaded with networking gear and educational software at a cost of nearly $1.3 billion dollars. This effort to give every student a wired tablet turned out to be a disaster and a cautionary tale for families and Government IT projects alike. To prevent student Internet postings, these iPads had no keyboard and students could not use them to write. That notwithstanding, many students, including those who weren't proficient in English, quickly learned how to bypass the system security features and used their iPads to surf the Internet. Understandably the units broke down under such heavy use, but this was not the key flaw of the effort to provide low-income students with equal access to the Internet and educational curriculum. This backfired because Los Angeles teachers (like many parents) were ill-trained on how to use the iPads and many never learned to use them… but their students did.

By now, all public institutions in the United States (schools, colleges, libraries, etc.,) provide only restricted internet access to their students and minor users. They set limits of accessibility by blocking sites deemed harmful or improper and all users of public facilities must sign an agreement to abide by specific "Internet and Computer Use Policy” of each institution. Minors are not allowed to use the Internet without written consent of their parents or guardians. Moreover, if a minor brings its own device, a "wireless user agreement" must be acknowledged every time it is used to access the wireless network (Wi-Fi) controlled by the institution, facility or the municipality. Do these protocols placed on top of blocked access help parents to protect minors from harm?

Let us take a closer look at what a typical clause found in public access agreements provides: “The Internet is an unregulated, global resource that contains materials that some persons may find offensive. While the City will take precautions to regulate internet access by minors on the City’s library computers, the City is not responsible for anything that any library user may see or read while in the Library that the user or, in the case of minors, the user’s parents or legal guardian, may find offensive. The City is not responsible for a minor that brings into the library a wireless capable device that permits access to Wi-Fi, which is unfiltered and unsecured. The City urges parents or legal guardians to accompany their children while visiting the Library to ensure that their children are safe at all times.” (From Moorpark Public Library Agreement, Section 2.2.)

As we can see, the real objective of Internet access protocols in public facilities is not to protect its minor patrons but to shield these institutions from liability from claims of their parents for failing to protect minor from exposure, by allowing them access to materials that a minor (or parents) might find harmful or offensive. This fear of liability underlies all public undertakings. As “harm” becomes more and more subjective and fuzzy, public institutions in America avoid the task of recognizing Internet threats and deny having any duty “to warn” minors against specific harm. They make it clear that they would not supervise minors exploring the Internet, As the LAUSD story illustrates, teachers could not prevent, warn or supervise minors going online even when required to do so. Internet cafes and private Internet access facilities may have been doing a much better job of policing minors, but for the large part they have disappeared from the horizon now dotted everywhere with multiple hot spots and free Internet zones. American parents recognize that when their children go online inside these institutions, they will not be protected from the Internet risks and threats. Like a monkey from a fable, the ultimate responsibility for what minors read or view online is on the shoulders of their parents and legal guardians

Here is the main paradox: global accessibility policies enable everyone’s access to educational, communicational and entertainment resources, and as Internet access everywhere expands as a matter of public expectations and even right, it does not and cannot discriminate against users on the basis of age. and thus cannot deliver “Safe Internet Experience” to minors because “safety” cannot be measured or defined by whatever stuff users might seek, encounter or see online. Simply put, as Internet access expands it expands and exacerbates the risks to minors.

As cyber-threats targeting minors, (e.g. fraud, phishing for disclosure of confidential information, deceptive economic enticements offered to minors, etc.) continue to metastasize, families were admonished to exercise vigilance and take whatever steps they could to protect their children. In a short order, numerous Internet websites sprung up as a communal response and resource for the scared parents. They disseminated information, provided general recommendations and specific instructions on how to detect the signs of problems. Some focused on one type of online threats such as pornography exposure e.g., or on cyberbullying (

Many gave general overview of the “dark forces’ of the Internet, while some provided medical framework of child’s exposure, Other resources were set by organizations, such as “Children Trends”,, and, especially the Pew Reports (we shall use them below) to arm parents with a sober view of trends and threats in minors computer and phone use.

The authority of social and faith-based organizations in America and their role in maintaining and heightening the need for parental awareness of the Internet has been rarely questioned. However, as their presence expands, so does the need to ensure continuity of their mission. This stimulates continuous fundraising efforts to obtain financial and human resources and thus the need to maintain and increase the level of threat awareness.

This bias must be recognized as an essential part of organizational efforts to attract funds and volunteers, but it is important to note a growing discrepancy of their utility: While the parental awareness of the intensity and ubiquity of the Internet threats goes up, the usefulness of these communal resources for parents dealing with specific situations goes way down.

Few sites can tell parents how to deal with issues of Internet access beyond the same set of generic recommendations. They instruct parents to watch over their children’ Internet activities, control the place and time of Internet access and conclude that “the best protection is to be able to talk to your children about what is happening in their lives.”

All of these recommendations are valid and true. At the same time, all of them remain ineffective and misleading to the extent that they ignore not only the duality of minors as a class, not only disregard real limits of parental interactions with their children, but they have no regard for complexity of our actual reality. They disregard the transformational nature of minors access to the internet because their focus is fixed on the responsive behavior of adults.

The third framework of support for parental controls and prevention of harm to minors is technological in nature. Given the social mandate of ‘minor protection” many such applications are available from third parties in nearly every country. In the US, this technology by which adults could block minor's access to specific and even generally designated sites is required by our complex utility laws and provided by all ISP's (Internet Service Providers) and phone companies tasked with designing and providing functional sets of parental controls. These tools are not free (even if offered as such for a limited time) As of this writing. ATT is offering its individual subscribers a sophisticated set of “controls” at $5 per month per line.

Still, their effectiveness and utility rests not so much on parental mapping of access boundaries for their children. To a much greater degree, the effectiveness of these techno-means must be seen in their dynamics as growing children may need or demand greater Internet access. This point of view is not supported and our reliance on parental use of technology requires understanding how these boundaries can be changed by minors negotiations with their parents over these borders and, especially, the types of compromises that parents and minors will or will not make.

These uncertainties cannot be eliminated by the growing array of protection products (software or services) such as EPP’s relying on automatic detection of threats by some algorithmic logic that can be extended from recognition of an “attack” to recognition of behavioral threats. More sophisticated efforts, such as Kaspersky Managed Protection, are underway to provide automated and human enabled services of threat detection, threat hunting and threat management where neither parents nor minors have any involvement in these efforts. The promise and speed of these and other developments as well as the threat they present will be covered in the Second Installment.

This is a good point to consider the paradox of divergence of our reliance on Internet technology to simultaneously enable and restrict Internet access. This is the core hurdle facing all families with children gaining increased access to the Internet. They are not the only social group confronting this balancing act.

Families cannot avoid being caught in the crossfire of views on harm that public institutions refuse to mediate. Nor can they escape this responsibility by simply admonishing their children “to act in a responsible, ethical, and legal manner.” .They cannot satisfy their obligations by telling their children not to access Internet sites “that depict or transmit material that violates state or federal law”.

Instead parents are expected to teach their children to fear the Internet as an increasingly dangerous information neighborhood for the young. As identified by Kaspersky, it is chock full of "the seven greatest risks that kids face online" such as 1. Cyberbullying, 2. Cyberpredators, 3. Posting Private Information, 4. Phishing, 5. Falling for Scams, 6. Accidentally Downloading Malware, and 7. Posts that Come Back to Haunt a Child Later in Life. Like many other sites, this inventory of harm ends with a recommendation to parents to talk “ to your children about what is going on in their lives.”

Pity the parents called to be responsible for the content of information retrieved or distributed by their children as the same content that may be a revelation for them, may be seen as anathema to other parents , or that whatever their child may consider "good”, “funny” or positive "could be perceived by other kids as 'hateful,' 'inappropriate", or ”objectionable” because it made them "feel uncomfortable."

These uncertainties account for some of the Fujian speakers stressing the need to raise our children’s sensitivities, to teach them tolerance and respect for differences, so as to avoid expressions of hate. Most analysis and ideas of the panelists reflected frustration with growing parental inability to prevent and confront incoming threats and to act decisively for “the child’s own good.”

Thus, our main focus is placed on exposure to and consumption of harmful content by minors. This is understandable as every pre-Internet society in the days of Books, Movies and especially TV viewing relied on family to control information consumption by their children. To this day, 'parental guidance' is officially rated and relied upon by censors to provide filters of inappropriate information

What has changed with the advent of the Internet so much that we can no longer ensure that parents continue to fulfill this role? The answer is everything changed and that nature of threats, minors, controls, and, of course, parents has become a different socio-behavioral system from the one in which our parents grew up.

From my perch as an internet manager and a father of 3 boys, I see many changes, challenges, flaws and obstacles to parental guidance supervision and controls as a reliable nation-wide platform of dealing with the minors’ access to the Internet.

The first challenge to address is the expansive change in the nature of harm. Let us put aside the ever-present, yet hidden issues, like does the duty of protecting minors from harm extends to minors production of harm, e.g. postings deemed harmful to others, participation in bullying of other kids, and if, so, how it must be exercised?

The first challenge is the issue of parents confronted with new technology: As many adults today respond to sophisticated Internet threats to their children by delegating these tasks to technology, we are compelled to ask whether even the best technology of unseen detection and instant response is sufficient or insufficient to protect the minors?

The challenge of the online threats that arise before and evolve faster than our defensive technology, forces us to reconsider how we expect to protect minors from them, if their adult guardians cannot yet access technology for their own protection? We need to recognize this as a conundrum: if parents cannot protect themselves by learning how to recognize and respond to threats of being sexually molested, robbed, attacked or held for ransom whether in real life or on the Internet, how can we trust them to protect their children?

In other words, the limits of technology force us to increase our reliance on the parental cognitive and emotional abilities to protect their children while at the same time recognizing how limited and unreliable these resources have become. If we ask how secure these resources are to assert “family controls” over Internet access by minors, the answer by authorities and communal websites is the same: they are often not there.

According to the San Diego District Attorney, quoted earlier: "an estimated 20% of parents do not supervise their children's Internet use at all, and only 52% of parents moderately supervise their children's Internet use. However, "some 71% of parents stop supervising Internet use by their children after the age of 14, yet close to 62% of teens say their parents know little or nothing about the websites they visit".

The DA’s office concludes that parental neglect of their duties to supervise Internet use is the main cause of minor’s exposure to online harm. It admonished parents: “Pay attention to your children because, if you don't, someone else will” . Parents are then asked to print and follow a list of tips beginning with this: “1. Place your computer in a common area of the house” followed by this recommendation: “2. Educate yourself about computers and the Internet.”

We need not forget that the Task Force data and recommendations came from the most recent yet already distant era when internet access was provided by stationary PC.'s found in family homes. This place of access (spatial localization) framed these recommendations and most of other suggestions to parents on how to set controls over the time and direction of the Internet use by minors.

The reason we continue to place our collective confidence in the obviously flawed parents is not because they are traditionally perceived as the last (if not the only) line of defense, but because protection of minors cannot be ensured by society nor resolved by technology alone. Since then, several developments made the above statistics as well as social reliance on parental controls significantly less realistic.

So, let’s get specific but slowly enough to trace what changed.

All societies rely on parental authority to control minors with only two sets of tools and means: physical constraints and cognitive emotional direction (teaching). Parents and other adult guardians are expected to anticipate, recognize and control minor’s responsive and self-initiated behavior while protecting and respecting minors independence. Social expectations of parental authority over minors rested on parents being able to observe, recognize and prevent harm in real time.

Minor’s behavior required physical and cognitive constraints imposed by adults before the minor recognized or experienced the consequences of their actions. Under the impact of the Internet, the effectiveness of physical and cognitive constraints on conduct i.e. ‘what the minor does’, and ‘who the child does it with’ has been grossly degraded. The Internet that brought us unrestrained connectivity and immediate access to kaleidoscopic array of “information packages” that undermined these social expectations, but what is it specifically, that eroded the efficiency and reliability of parental controls?

In rapid progression several developments removed anticipatory constraints from the reliable tool-box of parental authority. The first one came with cell phones that gave adults the much appreciated mobility and gifted minors with means to escape parental power of immediate observation and response. Parental efforts to limit the newly-found freedom of Internet access met the absolute ban on physical restraints upon minors in America. Placing conditions and restraints on the use of cell phones conflicted with the Western ideology of minor’s autonomy rooted in self-esteem and self-respect that defined ‘minors rights’ as instilled in American schools. That recognized, the big challenge to parental authority over minors came from the power of their peers. The Internet capacity to form and frame human groups gave ‘friends’ of minors more authority and significantly different power to guide and direct minors’ behavior than what their parents could exercise.

The diminished ability of parents to supervise their children’s interactions with their friends and peers rapidly became inability to control the entire range of their interactions with ‘others’ on the Internet. This loss was exacerbated by the different levels of knowledge of technologies and experience in the Internet use where minors cognitive skills far outpaced their parents.

As real threats to minor’s wellbeing continue to mount, parents everywhere face a growing disconnect between "parental knowledge," "time resources" and “intrusive means” to overcome or weaken minors “impenetrability” and "resistance" to rational reasoning. As a consequence of these (and other) developments, all parents have to deal with emancipation of minors from parental authority . As I mentioned before, parents meet these losses on their own. With the exception of preventive technology, none of the resources available to parents today can address this disconnect, other than by admonishing parents “to talk to their children”, to show “interest” in what they do online’ etc.

We need to recognize that our collective efforts to protect minors from Internet harm with ever-increasing reliance on “parental controls” ignore this cognitive-behavioral gap because we incorrectly recognize as the hierarchical asymmetry between all-knowing parents and their children.

Possession of Smart Phones (SP's) and other Wired Portable Devices (WPD.'s) by minors changed everything. Having a cellphone became as essential to teens (and then to pre-teens) as to their parents. The relentless pressure that minors (ever conscious of their peer group competition) put on their parents seeking a cellphone dovetailed with its utility to parents to have an umbilical connection with their precious bundle of joys and worries.

According to the latest 2018 Pew Research Report, smartphone ownership "has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are, in turn, fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis."

As the prices dropped, the ubiquity of Internet-accessible hand-held devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) had several unforeseen effects. The major one was that mobility of access effectively rendered all recommendations based on device fixed localization at family home useless. Consequently, overriding control over the "time" (duration) of computer use under parents' watchful eye was as good as gone.

While parents now may find their child's data usage online or access it from their own device, what does it really tell them? As the Internet grew and asserted itself as a "resource" for searching and acquiring 'knowledge' and as GPS and other useful apps became its integral part: how could parents tell if usage was “good” or “bad”? While concerns remained, parental acceptance of this uncertainty underwent radical change, especially for younger parents.



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