Parents, Please Stop Monitoring Your Children.

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This talk is not going to be about parenting advice. Then it would be in the wrong place. But I do want to share in the talk, is 1) some understanding I have about the complex digital space that parents are navigating these days, and 2) call for reflecting whether we are providing the best support for them.

1. What is your life-changing moment?

One of mine was in 2011 when we had our first child, and we bought our first iPad.

Little did we know that we are becoming part of the millions of others who are bringing up the iGen.

2. What is an iGen?

iGen term refers to children born between 1995 and 2012, who have little knowledge about the world before the internet.

As for how much we have worried about each generation, we are very worried about this generation that has been extremely digitally connected from a young age.

Many of us would be very familiar with the many debates and media articles about how this generation is facing a historical mental health crisis and how digital technologies and social media.

Here, I would like to look more deeply into the screen time debate.

3. Screen time debate

I guess everyone here in the room would agree with me that screen time control is far than just an issue for children. it’s as much a challenge for the children as for us.

There is a proliferate of tools being developed to support adults’ screentime management by providing our self-control. However, how will work for our children, whose self-control skills are still developing and maturing, who are still struggling with sitting still in the classroom?

So why do children, love their screen time? Are they having a good time? That’s what we want to find out through our research.

Our interviews with children show that just as much as how we have enjoyed hopping around in the yard, climbing trees, our children are truly enjoying their new digital childhood. They enjoy watching videos to learn about new things that they wouldn’t necessarily be keen otherwise through reading, they enjoy learning about the lives of children from other countries or cultures, and more importantly, they enjoy being able to communicate and keep in touch with their friends, given how modern family life is becoming increasingly busy.

4. Design of technologies

These are great examples of how technologies can bring in a positive impact on our life.

However, there is a fine line between developing engaging and user-friendly technologies and persuasive and additive technologies.

When we technologists start to build a tool or a piece of software, we want it to be useful, and easy-to-use, so that we could achieve goodwill behind the technologies, such as helping scientists to analysis TBs of data more efficiently, or attract a sizeable community, so that to sustain the development of good technologies, and make some money to support ourselves at the same time.

However, in the search of building better technologies, some discovered some psychology techniques, that they could apply, to make the tools more engaging, through just-in-time reward systems, or a good dose of social peer pressure.

Moving forward from these very engaging techs, the industry quickly moved forward with a new reality, now there are a lot of data we can have about people who are using these technologies. The amount data is rich enough to the level that before a child is born, they could know so much more about the parent and family they are from, what kind of first car seat they have, what kind of baby food they have, organic, home-made, shop-bought. Our shopping history closely follows the growth of our family life. And before you know it, people across the continent could have already known so much about the social-economical background that your child comes from, or the life choices that they may make.

5. What are they using this data for?

What are they using this information for?

  • Are they using this information to identify children who struggle with mental health issues or emotional disorders, and use social media platforms as an alternative channel to voice their struggles? No!
  • Are they using this information to help children who suffer from long term abuse and use social media as an alternative means to seek help? No!
  • Are they using this information to stop children going on those web sites that are inappropriate to their age, as the law said so? No?

So what are they using this information for?

Unsurprisingly, they are using this information to produce things they believe that children would be interested to watch and play.

Some expert once said: Do you want Netflix to produce programmes that you never want to watch?

His answer was: no, you don’t.

However, I would like to ask: Do we want to produce technologies that are built upon the exploitation of our children’s data, without their explicit knowledge, and used to manipulate what they see and what they would like to see from infancy?

If you do not see this is an issue, then there is a serious issue with our society and where it is going.

6. How are parents supported to cope with this complex digital space?

We had a survey of the top 200 parental apps on the Google play store, and it shows that the majority of them are featured with

- a control mechanism: locking down the screen access, or what their children can or cannot access

- or more interestingly, a tracking mechanism: remember the apps that those apps you could install on your spouses’ or partner’s devices and track where they are or have been.

What do parents and children think about this? Again, this is what our research and many related pieces of research have been trying to find out.

  • Parents of young children believe that this is their responsibility to safeguard their children and shield them from online risks.
  • However, parents of older children were concerned
    • Children will say no and figure out how to get around with the control and monitoring
    • Also, they are concerned that this is not helping their children to develop the autonomy and critical thinking abilities to cope with the digital wild west that they would have faced one day by themselves.
  • Furthermore, as we have shown so far, these control mechanisms are not going to stop the exploitation of children’s data and manipulation of what they see.

Dealing with screen time management is badly supported, and the root of issues is not widely understood and tackled with.

However, whose responsibilities should this be?

I am a firm believer that safeguarding our children and providing a better online space should not just down to the parents’ responsibility. There are some fundamental changes that need to happen, regarding

  • How we are applying technologies to resources to be accessed by children
  • How we are building technologies that are fundamentally grounded upon the exploitation of children’s data, an infringement of children’s basic rights.


Just because they don’t know, they can’t understand, should not be an excuse for doing so.

Just because this is something only ‘likely’ to be accessed by children, should not be an excuse for you not doing so.


Thank you!