When a generation of helicopter parents collides with the internet age, things can get a little out of hand. Built on the premise of bringing balance to the lives of digital-savvy kids and their web-wary caregivers, screen-monitoring apps have seen a significant uptick in popularity—and funding—over the last several months. In fact, the market is experiencing a wave of growth led by big names like Google, Amazon and Disney, all of which have launched new products aimed at keeping tabs on, well, those myriad online tabs.
But as the American Academy of Pediatrics is beginning to relax its stance on screen time restrictions—giving the greenlight for under-twos to engage in reasonable levels of tablet time, and over-sixes the go-ahead to have more media use within reason—are kids in need of strict guidelines, or will a basic comprehension of web literacy suffice? As tech companies are learning, there may be such thing as a happy medium.
“We looked at the space of parental controls in general, which used to be predicated on the idea that the internet is a bad place and kids needed to be kept safe,” says Jelani Memory, founder of Portland, Oregon-based Circle Media and its most popular product, Circle with Disney. “Parental controls were first designed in a time when there was one family computer, and you could install a piece of software on it that everyone in the home would access for their online use. Now, parents are excited about app-based monitoring tools that still let their kids access vast online learning resources, partake in online communication and do school work.”
Kids’ engagement in those types of activities has never been more time-consuming. In fact, a recent study from the US National Retail Foundation and IBM found that globally, 74% of two- to 22-year-olds spend their free time online. When using their devices, 73% of kids are texting and chatting, followed by accessing entertainment (59%) and playing games (58%). And according to UK media regulator Ofcom, UK kids ages five to 15 are spending 15 hours per week online, with three- and four-year-olds racking up 8.18 hours weekly in front of screens, up from 1.5 hours the year before.
In China, meanwhile, government and social pressures surrounding screen-time addictions have led social media and gaming giant Tencent to impose an unprecedented one-hour time limit on young players of its Honor of Kings mobile game. While the title’s iOS version grosses roughly US$84 million per month in China, according to App Annie, it has also banned under-12s from logging in after 9 p.m. and set tight restrictions on how much money younger users can spend within the game.
With the need for control rising in tandem with kids’ digital usage, two-year-old Circle, which joined forces with Disney in November 2015, raised US$10 million in Series A funding earlier this spring for market expansion, product development and staff recruitment. (The round was led primarily by California-based venture fund Relay Ventures.) Priced at US$99, Circle with Disney is a small white cube that works with a router to restrict access to apps and websites that parents deem inappropriate. (Explicit content, defined as “sites that host adult content of an extreme or sexually explicit nature,” is Circle’s most commonly filtered category.) It sets time limits for certain areas of the internet like social media, and gives parents insight into where kids are heading to online. And it also offers Circle Go, which at US$9.95 per month extends the settings outside of the home to all mobile devices on WiFi or 4G LTE networks.
“From a business perspective, we’re not becoming less connected but rather letting everyone be more connected,” says Memory. “The reality is that kids have more access to information online now than at any other time in history. We think that’s fantastic, but a parent should be able to step into that space and understand it. It’s not just about monitoring kids online. It’s about managing a family’s devices to get the most out of them, while not having them hurt people’s home lives.”
Family is also central to Google’s new screen-monitoring application, which was released in March. Currently in beta testing, Family Link is a free tool that manages kids’ apps by allowing parents to block or approve any content from the Google Play Store. It also provides parents with the ability to keep an eye on screen time by seeing how many minutes are spent on each app in weekly and monthly reports, which can then be used to set daily limits. It gives parents the power to lock a child’s device remotely, too.
“Many of Google’s products are free, because we want people to be a part of the Google ecosystem,” says Saurabh Sharma, product manager at Google for Family Link. “We’ve seen external studies that say kids are getting devices at younger and younger ages. Along with that, we’ve also seen a trend towards smartphones and tablets getting cheaper, and I think that drives some of the usage by younger folks.”
Sharma says Google is hoping Family Link keeps kids focused on all the benefits of the internet like doing their homework, trying out new math apps and watching YouTube Kids, while helping them steer clear of more nefarious content.
But an entirely sheltered online experience can have drawbacks, too. Caroline Knorr, parenting senior editor at US nonprofit org Common Sense Media, says restrictions may not be that necessary. She contends that kids should have the benefit of freely exploring the online world at whatever times they want, enabling them to learn digital citizenship organically.
“Kids have to be able to figure out when they need to go to bed and when they should put their phones away. And if they run into trouble on the internet, they should know who to report that to,” says Knorr. “These are all digital citizenship skills that parents should be encouraging their kids to learn. They don’t always need to have the internet police in their home.”
Knorr worries that a lot of these programs still prey on the idea that the internet is a dark and scary place, and not enough is being done to promote the notion that many different websites can be educational. In fact, Knorr is more concerned about kids flipping between an educational website and Instagram—as that sort of multi-taking is distracting and detrimental to kids’ attention spans—rather than looking at lurid content. But Knorr does acknowledge some benefits to monitoring programs.
“Some of the products on the market do offer great features, like allowing you to set the time that kids can be on the internet,” says Knorr. She also recommends parents take the time to actually sit down and discuss internet safety with their kids, rather than just implementing tools that do all of the heavy lifting.
Amazon, for one, is hoping to put that sort of conversation into play with its new offering. Parent Dashboard is a webpage, rather than an app or separate program, that can be accessed for free by Amazon subscribers in the US, the UK and Germany. It provides daily activity reports of a child’s device usage while checked into his or her Amazon FreeTime profile. (Amazon’s subscription-based FreeTime program contains thousands of books, videos and apps that are accessed by more than 10 million users.)
Dashboard reports include information like videos watched, books read, apps or games played and websites visited, including how many minutes were spent on a particular title and how that usage may have changed.
According to Kurt Beidler, director and GM of Amazon FreeTime digital products for kids and families, the e-commerce giant was inspired to create this new program to bridge the gap between generations. For example, the dashboard’s open-ended Discussion Cards ask, “What’s the difference between a canine and a feline?” when kids click on the book National Geographic Readers: Cats vs. Dogs.
Ironically, Parent Dashboard doesn’t have to involve parent-child dialog at all. “Maybe a child has a birthday coming up and parents want to buy some books,” Beidler says. “By watching his or her online activity, they will know the kinds of content their child is really having fun with—without ever having to directly ask.”