Vanderbilt researchers develop app that promotes shared responsibility between parents and teens to manage family online safety and privacy

For parents and teenagers alike, technology is a two-way street. Parents often rely on adolescents for help navigating new digital devices. At the same time, they are often quick to impose restrictive controls intended to keep their children safe online.

To help resolve these tensions, Vanderbilt researchers, with collaborators from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and the University of Cincinnati, developed a mobile app—Community Oversight of Privacy and Security (“CO-oPS”)—and tested it with parents and teenagers to see whether working collaboratively would help resolve some of the tech-centered disputes while enhancing the safety and privacy of all family members.

Mamtaj Akter

Vanderbilt computer science graduate student Mamtaj Akter presented the paper, “From Parental Control to Joint Family Oversight: Can Parents and Teens Manage Mobile Online Safety and Privacy as Equals?,” virtually on Nov. 9 at the 25th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work And Social Computing in Taiwan. Akter works in Vanderbilt’s Socio-Technical Interaction Research (STIR) Lab led by Pamela Wisniewski, Flowers Family Fellow in Engineering and associate professor of computer science, also a co-author.

In evaluating the CO-oPS app, parents and adolescents both liked features that gave them transparency into the online apps and permissions of one another’s devices. Other findings include:

  • Parents and teens felt that the app encouraged face-to-face conversations about safety and privacy.
  • Parents saw more value in joint oversight than teens. Teens preferred the app for self-monitoring so they could more effectively manage the privacy and security of their devices themselves.
  • Parents were apt to take technology advice given by their teens, while teens needed to verify any advice given by parents prior to changing privacy settings or uninstalling apps at their parents’ request.

“Our research revealed how parents and teens conceptualize online safety, privacy, and security differently. Parents worried about potentially malicious interactions with other people and were most concerned about which apps their teens had installed on their phones. Teens, being more tech savvy about the malicious intent of the technologies themselves,were more likely to consider it unsafe to share sensitive data, such as location, with apps,” Akter said.

Wisniewski said their research shows that teens are not the problem, and in fact, they can be a big part of the solution when it comes to protecting the family’s online safety and privacy. “Often, teens are tech savvier than their parents, so having them work together to safeguard their family from dangers on the internet can be mutually beneficial—and build trust instead of animosity,” she said.

Akter said apps like CO-oPS can help parents and teens share their concerns with one another and potentially raise their collective knowledge and awareness in mobile online safety and privacy. “However, these positive outcomes would rely heavily on buy-in from both teens and parents on the idea that it is their job to watch over one another.”

Collaborators and co-authors include Amy J. Godfrey, University of Central Florida; Jess Kropczynski, University of Cincinnati; and Heather R. Lipford, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation

See a YouTube video presentation of the study.

Contact: Brenda Ellis, 615 343-6314