Phones ‘r’ us: Parental controls in a digital world

By Pooja Bhargava

Episode 1

One evening after tucking the kids into bed I was about to sit down for some quiet time when the phone buzzed. It was a friend from the neighbourhood, a mother of two, a teenaged daughter and a son a couple of years younger. Her family has been in the UAE for over a decade now, and the kids have grown up here, successfully adapting to a multicultural setting. A great conversationalist and a doting mother, my friend recently got back to her career in finance after a break of about 13 years. Being a full-time mother, she was on top of challenges in all aspects of her children’s lives. From food to fun, activities were carefully monitored and mediated by her. However, after getting back to full-time work, she felt somewhat overwhelmed and confused about her absence from home for most of the day. More importantly (as I perceived it) her concern was about monitoring the children’s expanding worlds. What were they doing in the afternoons? What were they watching? Who were they speaking to?

Due to the living arrangements and weather conditions, life in Dubai is mostly confined to indoor activity for much of the year, and screen time is a common pastime for children. She was calling to discuss how to install parental controls on what they could access online and the placement of webcams in their rooms. Her doubts were related to how to communicate this decision to the children and how to justify her restrictions.

Episode 2

During a recent workshop about cyber-safety that I was conducting, several issues regarding potential threats for children of all ages were raised. Most of the participants were mothers who were keen to learn how to install safety features for managing access to online content. During the discussions, one participant described an incident related to her son’s friend who was ‘grounded’ for a month, losing access to all his electronic devices. Apparently, he had spent a lot of money on downloads and online games. All these purchases had been managed by manipulating relevant messages on his mother’s phone related to credit card purchases. The mothers were quite bewildered about the extent of the child’s transgressions and there was unanimous agreement that children should not be given so much freedom. They said also that the digital lives of children must be monitored from early on to prevent such an eventuality. There was an equally intense concern about HOW such controls were to be implemented and a palpable awkwardness related to communicating such restrictions to children since it would imply a ‘lack of trust’ in the child.


Threats have always existed

The management of children’s experiences is a universal concern, something that has always troubled adults. From inappropriate friendships to excessive indulgences, parents have always worried about their growing children out there in the world. When credit cards were not available, children would sometimes take money without permission; when online games weren’t accessible, they would gamble on the streets. Few children have grown to maturity without testing the boundaries of what they can do. A person who has never lied, who has never stolen, who has never tricked someone else, has never been a child, someone once said.

When books were first introduced, reading novels was a threat to morality[1], it was believed. If we move back further in time, literacy was assumed to be a risk when compared to oral communication, since the impressionable young mind was considered corruptible by outside information. This argument was also used to deny access of the written word to women. We can notice, therefore that the advent of every technology has led to a simultaneous reaction about its dangers. Therefore, at the outset, we wish to assert that potentially harmful experiences and children’s transgressions have always been around and families have (successfully or otherwise) been dealing with them for centuries.  

Although this is a perennial concern, we do believe that worries have become amplified with the explosion in digital technology. These fears are justified, but we can see two important misconceptions here. The first relates to the dismissal of threats that existed in pre-internet lives. It appears as if all contemporary risks are attributable exclusively to an access to the world wide web, before which parents had an easier time bringing up children. This is just not true. Secondly, we do believe, also, that there is a tendency to overestimate the risks related to technology, while ignoring other important ones and also failing to recognize the numerous advantages.

Parental control and the culture of autonomy

Another issue that emerges from the episodes is how and when to handle restrictions on children. It appears that there is an underlying feeling of guilt and an assumption that controls are ‘bad’. The mothers seem defensive about establishing rules and restrictions. Maybe this is related to the ideology of independence and autonomy, where control is believed to be wrong and supervision implies distrust. Suppose we relate to control as care, concern, and not distrust, and treat supervision of children and their guidance as a duty of being a parent, perhaps the subliminal guilt and discomfort with ‘control’ would be eased. In Indian families, for instance, a fair degree of control is normal and restrictions are omnipresent. Children are guided to behave differently with different people, and the appearance of agreement is sometimes more important than actual agreement. This does not at all imply complete compliance or perfect solutions, it’s just a different way of handling parent-child relations.

This perspective will be alien to a society that values individual autonomy and identity as an inalienable right. In a culture where every rule must be “explained” to children, the imposition of controls needs justification. Alternatively, where the person in authority takes decisions, these matters will take on a different meaning. In both settings (there are many more than two options, but only two contrasting ones are discussed here), children will still violate boundaries, but the guilt of setting un-reasoned rules will be more likely to emerge in the former.

Digital residents

Perhaps some of the discomfort of parents relates to the fact that relatively, children are much faster in picking up technological innovations, and that allows them access to experiences outside of the familiar. Exposure to the world-wide-web is inevitable in today’s day and age. The ease with which children have taken to technology can easily justify the label ‘Digital Natives’[2], which means growing up with digital content as a primary source of information and education. More recently called digital residents, these children have started living seamlessly between virtual and real lives. Sometimes the intensity and frequency of contact with virtual acquaintances may even exceed real ones. A lot has been researched and written about the effects of excessive screen-time on children’s mental and physical health; ironically most of it can be accessed online. The internet has shrunk the world, dissolved boundaries, enhanced education, provided information on our fingertips, but it has also introduced challenges that we were unprepared for. Paradoxically, the same technology that provides the threat is what is depended upon for surveillance. Also, the internet is blamed for isolating people from each other, but it has also brought people much closer through easier and frequent (and relatively free) contact over social networking. As a mother of a young child, Punya Pillai finds much potential in the use of digital technology. It is not the technology itself, but how we use it that counts.

Children’s negotiations of parental controls

Indian families are a training ground for the development of multiple identities, and children are actively guided towards different presentations of themselves depending on situation and company. Some even have different names for home and school, a clear separation of the informal, intimate world from the public one. Within the world of the family, conduct is custom-designed to the expectations of different settings, like a greater deference before older people and so on. From a very early stage, therefore, children learn to negotiate these different roles as different ‘selves’, although not always without conflict.  For instance, in Indu Kaura’s dissertation, children found the expectation of parents for high cooperation within the family, and a high competitiveness with peers to be an unreasonable demand when it is first communicated. Kaura found that closer to young adulthood, adolescents realize that these demands are part of the fabric of layered relationships and learn to cleverly negotiate their associations with peers as per their own motivations, sometimes keeping them secret from their parents.

In order to demonstrate this point, we asked Shashi Shukla to conduct a session in her class at University yesterday. She asked her students (please note that they are young adults) how they negotiated the use of their cellphones at home. Of all the 13 students present, only one said she shared the contents of her phone freely with her mother. All others kept their instruments locked with a secret password and made sure not to leave their phones around. Parents were not happy about this, they said, and many conflicts arise about attempted restrictions. Yet cellphones are also necessary for keeping track on them and parents keep a constant track on their movements this way. Most of students live with their families. These rules were negotiated by using different strategies: missed calls to friends as signals to call back, excuses for sharing college work, etc. One of the girls mentioned that she had entered all her male friends under code names so that her Dad would not know the identity of the caller. She found him to be excessively strict.

Children will always keep some secrets from their parents, as they should. There is a need to keep an effective communication going with children that facilitates conversations about serious issues. Also, children watch parents very closely, and cultivating healthy habits related to confidence and confidentiality is essential for the developing child. Control need not be construed as distrust, and parents need to be confident about their responsibilities, not guilty.

When we sent this draft to Shraddha Kapoor, she said that in her dealings with her nine-year-old daughter, she was explicit about boundaries, clearly declaring limits on physical movement and accessibility to technology (use of the elevator on your own, going for sleep-overs to a friend’s place, having a personal phone) and the ages at which what will be allowed. She is told these boundaries are for her safety without providing long-drawn explanations of potential threats. Any crossing of boundaries is labelled as “acting too big for your boots” an expression her daughter has internalized, and uses often in her chats with her mother. “Oh! That would mean she’s acting too big for her boots?”

Building critical skills and developing healthy habits

Stephan Hawking recently tweeted that “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”. The internet can definitely enhance this illusion[3], especially when the user is unable to discern the quality of the information being accessed. We end this commentary by emphasizing that technology has entered our lives and there is no way that we can revert to a life without these gadgets, except temporarily. For those of us who have the benefit of living with digital innovations, the advantages of these mediators of knowledge and entertainment have made them habitual companions in almost every aspect of our lives. When something so powerful enters our lives, it is unlikely that the lives of children will remain untouched. If not at home, children will soon be accessing gadgets in their friends’ company. We argue, therefore, that like the development of favourable eating habits or daily exercise, nurturing a healthy consumption of digital technology is also essential. Children watch their parents very closely and most often, model their conduct on them, Punya Pillai remarked in her reading of our draft. Being a good role model of the balanced usage of technology is the first step to nurturing a similar practice in children.




[2] by Marc Prensky in 2001



  1. I liked the tenor of this post moving from control to role modelling. Teue indeed. I would also add involved parenting and shaking of each others interests. The historical positioning of change and resistance was very appropriate. Congrats Pooja. Nandita, well keep connected


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