Harnessing UX research to empower children and enhance parental controls online

March 12, 2024

In an era where children’s online safety is paramount, navigating the complex landscape of parental controls presents both challenges and opportunities. As recent legislature prioritizes safeguarding of younger users from harmful content and as digital natives outpace parental understanding of technology, the need for robust user experience (UX) research becomes increasingly apparent. From uncovering user behaviours to informing design decisions, harnessing UX research holds the key to transforming obstacles into opportunities for empowering children and enhancing parental controls. 

In the UK, Parliament has passed the Online Safety Act, which will be phased in throughout 2024 with the intent of reducing the harm of certain online services to young and vulnerable users. The act aims to prevent children from accessing harmful or age-inappropriate content and enforce age-checking measures. Once entirely in place, platforms will have to show Ofcom–the UK regulator–that they have processes in place to meet the requirements set out by the act. Ofcom will check how effectively those processes protect internet users from harm. Achieving this goal is important, as Ofcom can impose fines and other penalties if the requirements are not followed. One area where Ofcom will be particularly focused is platforms’ parental controls. 

Challenges in successful use of parental controls 

Parental controls are designed to keep kids safe online, but these tools aren’t as prevalent (or easy to use) as they should be. We all sense that the younger generations have a native facility with technology that older generations might not possess. This digital asymmetry raises the odds that parents can be outmanoeuvred by their children when setting up parental controls. In research we’ve been conducting with children and adolescents in this space, children and young adults frequently tell us how they circumvent the controls put in place by their parents/guardians. As far back as 2007, my colleagues and I found that parents had high confidence that they had properly set up parental controls when, in fact, they hadn’t. 

Whether it is screen time or access to social media, parental controls can be a huge source of friction between parents and children; these controls are often nuanced and must be understood to be managed properly. As a family matter and from a socio-technical point, parental controls should be a vehicle to foster discussion about online harms and set proper boundaries. Parents must educate themselves first–and yes, this is real work–as to what harms await their children behind a phone, computer, or TV screen. Younger children need to be instructed and guided delicately, while older children will need to understand their parents’ perspectives and values.  

UX research to uncover mental models of parents and children 

From a platform perspective, exploratory UX research plays a critical role in informing parental control design by uncovering the level of skills and knowledge of the users and the required features/functions. Good design, based on solid user research, should facilitate the dialogue between parent and child and should help minimise discord over specific settings.  

Picture Sarah, a tech-savvy 12-year-old, and her dad, Mark, working through parental controls on her new tablet. Mark, worried about safety, sets rigid limits and filters, while Sarah, hoping for some liberties, is irritated by the absolute level of some of the restrictions. This struggle reflects a lack of understanding of the users’ expectations and desires, leading to confusion and conflict. 

Imagine a different scene. A platform offers clear dashboards to help understanding for parents, granular filters for customisation, and simple sliders for time limits. Sarah feels heard, Mark has peace of mind, and both can openly discuss responsible online habits. This shift highlights the power of UX research in designing parental controls that work for everyone. 

Managing the social and familial side of this is essential, but this is only part of the solution. As noted above, users (parents/guardians) can think they have properly set up the controls when they have not. This points to two issues: poor usability and poor feedback. Poor usability generally stems from inadequate requirements gathering and suboptimal design methodology. When those combine, the implementation often falls short. Poor feedback is a different problem. Once a user has traversed down a journey, it is important to provide them a level of feedback that is complete and unambiguous. Conversely, good usability and relevant feedback can equip users with robust mental models and enable them to set the parental controls as intended and confirm that they have set them successfully. 

Early UX research can also enable good design. For instance, as in the example above, research should allow for nuanced settings (not just on/off) of certain content (e.g., language).  

In short, UX research can enable the development of good parental controls that can:  

  • Foster a dialogue between the parent and child about online safety, tailoring controls to age and maturity, and respecting children’s privacy while ensuring safety 
  • Be transparent and comprehensive in the functionality of the controls, while also focusing on the use of plain language with instructions and guidance for parents at both ends of the tech-savvy spectrum (So much of the proper setting of these controls relies on comprehension of the issues and but also of the implications of those settings. In short, language should be a key part of the settings.) 
  • Provide sufficient feedback to the parent and the child that the controls have been set properly to avoid false confidence or excessive limitations  

UX researchers have the tools to support development already: early formative research, good design practices, and lots of user testing can all enable platforms to guide their compliance efforts and crucially help parents to make informed decisions, delivering the best outcomes for all of their users.