Beki Grinter

Parental Controls and other Design Examples

In empirical, HCI, research on January 10, 2012 at 9:02 am

I quite often find myself listening to conversations about the desirability of controlling children’s access to the Internet using technical means. In other words, we could design something that turns of Internet access to a child’s device until something else, usually homework, has been completed. Typically this is an example used in discussion of what we might design and deploy within the home, as either part of an application or increasingly as a feature of parent’s ability to control their home network infrastructure. Each time this example is used, I find myself thinking that the moment for research has just passed by.

Perhaps there are really interesting and important problems in this space, but I’m not entirely sure that we, as designers of future technologies, should impose this on any household.

First, I have a practical concern. Perhaps that homework maybe helped by going online to look up references and resources. Of course copying may also occur, but its still not clear to me that turning off the Internet wouldn’t lead to more difficulty in doing a good job with the assignment.

But that’s not where the majority of my concern lies. I think of my own teenage years, and also the teens I met as part of my research. There’s a creativity that comes with the ability to use technology unseen and unknown by parents. For example, I once met a son who had managed to run Ethernet all the way from his parent’s office to his room in order to covertly use the network. Another time I met a sister who texted her younger brother to let her in when she came home sufficiently late and sufficiently drunk that she couldn’t open the front door. She knew that even though he had a curfew for stopping using the phone that under the sheets he’d be online texting his friends. In these and other cases there were rules about technology and its use, and rules were made to be broken.

It seems like an imposition of our values onto those who use the Internet. We think technology can be used to constrain and even terminate access, so why shouldn’t we impose that on everyone? I really find myself uncomfortable with the idea that we should. Are their other ways, are those ways good enough.

I resist this example because it feels too comfortable. I think it allows us to overlook and potentially ignore a set of practices and counter practices that perhaps are really central to the experience of being in a family. I wonder whether this example is as dangerous as the one in which a woman is portrayed as a naive technology user (my Mother/Granny couldn’t ).

  1. Interesting post! I look forward to discussing it more whenever I defend. 🙂
    The tough question I think is what happens for those parents who *want* technology to control/monitor their teens. It goes beyond us deciding whether parents are users who know what is best for them or not, to us as designers deciding that parents *shouldn’t* be able to decide what is best for their kids. (Of course, there is a large market for monitoring software among parents, there are many software packages and services available for exactly this purpose). Age is also an overlooked variable. Most of us don’t feel so bad monitoring young children, and most of us do feel bad monitoring seniors in high school. Middle school is very fuzzy. 🙂

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