The market is ripe for enhanced family control apps on social media. While third-party options abound, social networking companies, which are better equipped to nip disturbing trends at their source, have updated their privacy options as a damage control measure, but many of these efforts fall short.

There is no escaping the impact of technology’s rapid expansion in our daily lives, especially among youth, who are growing up as digital natives with a flair for technology. The average age of personal device ownership has been at a steady decline in the US. According to a 2021 report by Common Sense Census, 43% of US children ages 8 to 12 own a smartphone and 57% of them own a tablet.

This trend brings new challenges to caregivers and tech companies, especially as ongoing revelations regarding social media’s impact on minors’ privacy and mental health issues continue raising red flags.

Parental controls on social media apps

Meta Platforms (formerly known as Facebook) was negatively impacted in late 2021 when whistleblower reports revealed how its social networking platforms, Facebook and Instagram, could potentially harm children and teenagers due to misinformation and were contributing to mental illnesses among the youth. The company, along with others in the industry, has since taken steady steps to increase privacy options and tools in their platforms.

Last year, Meta introduced safety tools for Facebook that restrict adults from messaging teenagers they are not connected to via their profile. The company also announced this year that it will enhance this feature by proactively enabling teenagers to report suspicious adults who try to contact them. Facebook is also defaulting users under the age of 16 (or under 18 in certain countries) into more private settings when they join the platform, effectively restricting their visibility to the public.

For Instagram, the company has made continued efforts to strengthen the Family Center feature. The hub now allows parents to set limitations on usage time, see information on accounts reported by their children as well as initiate supervision tools.

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Snap , owner of Snapchat, an app widely used by teenagers, has also indicated that the company will soon introduce parental controls on its site, allowing guardians to monitor their kids’ activities by viewing their contact list and chat activity. Snapchat’s Family Center will enable guardians to link their account to their teens through an invite process. Once approved, parents will be able to see the child’s contacts and friend list and report potential abuse to Snap’s related teams.

Too little despite being too late

While these initiatives introduce much needed security features to leading social media apps, they fall short in practicality. Touted control functionalities rely on the account holder’s (minor’s) willingness to be monitored and assume that guardians are tech savvy or well versed with how the social networking app/website functions .

While monitoring a minor’s engagement on a site is useful, social networking sites should also work on fine tuning their algorithm that displays content to users on the discover tabs and pages, which could be inappropriate and trigger unintended responses or reactions. Social networking sites should also work closely with law enforcement agencies in reporting verified inappropriate behaviours and even bullying incidents, which will send a strong message to the perpetrators and help improve the overall environment of these websites.

As social media sites continue to seek the right balance between proactively ensuring the wellbeing of their userbase while retaining the appeal of their sites and apps, we will continue to see several iterations of control tools and features from these companies. Feedback from the community and law enforcement agencies will go a long way in ensuring the features are relevant and achieve their goal of ensuring minors’ safety and wellbeing.