Are Parental Controls Really That Effective?

By: Dr Justin Coulson

Dear Dr Justin, a few weeks ago we found our ten-year-old son looking at an explicit website on his iPad. He says he found it accidentally when he was looking for games and we believe him. We definitely don’t want him looking at those kinds of sites, accidentally or not, so we’ve set up parental controls. But not sure it’s the best way to help our son learn the right thing to do.

This is really a dilemma of modern parenthood. As parents we need to guide our children’s online experiences, allowing them to experience technology while fiercely guarding their wellbeing. We also need to ensure they are developing the skills to make good choices – both in the offline and the online world.

We want to let them explore, but we need to protect them. How do we do both?

Parental controls

It is worth having internet filters in place. These may help prevent your child from accidentally stumbling onto explicit content. A new study shows that one in five youths are seeing unwanted sexual material online! In reality, it’s probably far higher… because often kids don’t like to admit this stuff. So, anything that we can do to prevent this is a step in the right direction.

But filters really won’t cut it, and here’s why. University of Oxford researchers have found that filters are – at best – ineffective. Having filters in place prevented a chance encounter with online sexual material in only 0.5% of the cases studied. 99.5% of the time, filters made no difference at all.

Think of it like this – you can fence a pool, but you can’t fence the ocean. In the same way, a filter only goes so far to protect our children. Even if filters did work – and they clearly aren’t as safe as we’d like – our kids use other people’s devices all the time. Only around 50% of parents have set up filters for their kids. So even if you do, half of your child’s friends don’t.

And filters are not effective against new technologies. Each time a new way of sharing content is developed, the filter becomes obsolete. And kids can get around filters. If they are motivated, they will.

Have the Conversation

Only about 40% of parents regularly talk to their children and teens about internet safety. Yet, this is the most important tool we have to keep our kids safe. When you know that your child has come across explicit content (or even if you don’t know, but worry that he might have), have the conversation.

Say, ‘Hey, I know you came across that website. At your age a lot of kids are having the same thing happen to them. How did that make you feel? What questions do you have?’

Make sure you keep the conversation age appropriate, but for older kids and teens be as forthright as possible. We aren’t doing them any favours by pretending these things aren’t happening.

And it can be more helpful to have conversation before they see anything. This is called pre-arming. Unfortunately studies show parents usually talk to their kids about serious things like Internet porn (or even sex) after they find out their kids have been involved.

The Three E’s

It will also help to remember the three E’s of Effective Discipline – explain, explore and empower. We can use the three E’s to guide our kids as they navigate a scary online world.


First, explain to your child what you expect. Explain the kinds of choices you want them to make when it comes to internet use. Explain the risks of making the wrong choices. Then give them a chance to join in the discussion. Ask them, why? Why is avoiding pornography important? Why is it important to tell someone when you come across inappropriate stuff online?

The more clearly you explain, and the more input you receive, the more chance that you will get understanding and cooperation from your kids.


Next, you want to explore the issue with your child. You say, ‘Now you know what I expect, but how do you feel about this?’ If they’re giving you opposition, find out why. If they are worried about getting in trouble, explore that with them. It’s all about empathy and perspective.


Finally, we need to empower our kids. This is where we say, ‘OK, I get where you’re coming from, and you know what I expect. Where do we go from here?’ Help them think of options for combating the problem. For example, you could discuss how they can always come to you no matter what if anything online makes them uncomfortable. Engage in a conversation about what the appropriate next steps might be.

In today’s modern online word, our kids WILL be exposed to content that we wish they weren’t. And unfortunately we can’t totally rely on technology to do our parenting for us. But by using our most powerful parenting tools – communication and presence – we can teach them how to make good choices, both online and in the real world.

PS – The government can do more to limit exposure by making explicit content something that people choose to ‘opt-in’ to. This would mean that the content would not be so readily available to our kids. And while the Australian government has been considering this type of framework, so far only the United Kingdom has adopted a process by which internet providers can block pornography. While some argue that this is censorship or limiting freedom of the internet, the online world is not just frequented by adults. Our kids are there too – and we need to protect them. (I can’t find the source, but I do recall reading somewhere that less than 30% of people opt-in to the explicit content… which suggests most people don’t want it… and kids will be safer.)

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.