How can parents monitor their children’s screen time? | Opinion

From cyberbullying and peer pressure to explicit content and websites encouraging self-harm and dangerous fads, even the most cautious child can be in danger online.

Because pre-teens and teens watch videos online for an average of an hour each day, they are regularly exposed to content that their parents would never allow them to see in real life. It’s an open secret that the videos that perform best on TikTok are optimized for engagement, not age appropriateness.

The first line of defense is, of course, parents and their communities. But while these efforts are necessary, they are not enough. Lawmakers across the political spectrum, including in progressive California, recognize the need to tilt the playing field away from big tech and toward child protection. Giving parents more tools to ensure their children are safe online should be part of a pro-parent political agenda.

The most important step policymakers could take is to require that all minors get permission from a parent or guardian to open an account on a social media site or app, like Thomas Lehrman and Brad Wilcox of from the University of Virginia.

But the next strategy would be to link that parent’s account to their child’s and give mom or dad admin access to view a child’s messages, videos, likes, and settings. Many parents are already asking their children for their passwords to their social media sites, although some say it indicates a lack of trust. Of course, parents would never need to use this access if they didn’t want to, but if it’s the default, parents could be better aware of what their kids are watching online and engage in better conversations about social media content.

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Many of the dangerous social pathologies that exacerbate mental illness, suicide, and depression are fueled by online subcultures that aren’t always visible to the unwary eye. Even in less damaging areas, many parents, surprised by sudden changes in their teens’ identities, interests, and behaviors, have attributed the changes to social media use they were unaware of. Parents, even progressive ones, have expressed concern about what unrestricted access to pornography has done to middle and high school students.

Giving parents the ability to see what type of content their kids are being fed by algorithms or other users could give them an early warning. And knowing that mom or dad might find a trail of age-inappropriate content might make some kids think twice about clicking links they shouldn’t.

When it comes to technology and social media, parents from across the political spectrum feel overwhelmed; Two-thirds of parents tell pollsters they are somewhat or very concerned about their children being the target of online predators or accessing violent or sexually explicit content. And there’s a growing bipartisan effort to get the federal government to update its ground rules on kids and technology.

The Children’s Online Privacy Act currently offers some basic protections – for example, websites and social media companies are not allowed to collect information about children under the age of 13 without their parents’ permission. But the law was passed in the days before MySpace, let alone Snapchat, Instagram, or TikTok.

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President Joe Biden has called for a ban on collecting data and targeting advertising to minors, which would not solve the underlying problems of children. A more promising avenue at the federal level is the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act of 2022, or KOSA, sponsored by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). The law would require social media platforms to prevent the glorification of certain harmful behaviors (including self-harm and suicide), strengthen privacy for users under the age of 16, and give minors more opportunities to opt out of algorithmic recommendations. It would make it easier for researchers to study the effects of technology on children.

Most importantly, KOSA is investigating the best ways to implement an age verification system that prevents children from accessing explicit content without providing proof of age such as a driver’s license or bank account. This is a crucial step in a world where the average age for first exposure to pornography is now around 11 or 12 years old.

But states don’t have to wait for Congress. Recently passed California law requires online services to enable the highest privacy settings by default for users under the age of 18 and prohibit certain forms of data collection and tracking. It offers a modest first step towards a more kid-friendly internet, although it doesn’t go far enough to give parents more options to see what their kids watch online.

Conservatives should take California legislation and build on it. It is important to emphasize that this effort is not about content moderation or political censorship of Big Tech; It’s about recognizing that the social pressures children face online is too great for individual parents to handle on their own.

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Again, parents always have the ultimate responsibility for keeping their children safe online. Earlier this year, my colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and I put together a parent’s guide to kids and technology, aimed at making families more familiar with some existing tools for filtering content and enforcing screen time restrictions. The group Wait Until Eighth, a parent-led grassroots movement, encourages parents to promise each other that their child won’t get a cell phone until eighth grade.

But parents also need help from politicians. Building better barriers for kids to interact online is like painting a crosswalk on a busy street. Nothing can guarantee they won’t find danger, but by changing the infrastructure we can make it less likely they’ll stumble into damage. Likewise, converting our digital infrastructure to protect children should be a top priority.

Family-friendly conservatives should be encouraged that even progressive states are beginning to address the dangers children face online. Giving parents more tools to shape and monitor the digital environment in which their child will spend time should be a fundamental part of a pro-family agenda, and perhaps even an area for bipartisan compromise.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites on Twitter) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and writes from Columbia, SC

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