Is it Spying?

Is there such a thing as too intrusive when it comes to monitoring kids' online lives?

As parents we usually know where our kids are each day, who they're with, and what the are doing - in the “physical” world. But in the online world, which is where our kids spend an increasing percentage of their waking hours, we often know very little about their whereabouts or doings - and the dangers our kids face online, are no less daunting than the dangers they are exposed to as they travel in the “real” world.

In fact, a recent study found that cyberbullying, which is the same as bullying but online, can be as harmful as physical violence, causing kids to think about skipping school or even consider suicide1 and according to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report 95% of American teens use the internet, from a computer at home, a tablet or most probably their Smartphone.2

Most parents only realize something is wrong after the fact, when their child suddenly has mood changes and seems upset, or in the worst tragic extreme - their child has committed suicide. To avoid finding out when it’s too late - the natural conclusion would be - hey, we need to be aware of what our kids are doing online! But wouldn’t that be an invasion of their privacy? Where does their privacy end and safety begin? When does monitoring and following them online - for their safety! - become spying?

All or nothing? As usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle

According to Mary Madden, one of the authors of the Pew report there are two extremes: parents who really lock down and monitor everything -- or the ones who throw up their hands and say, 'I'm so overwhelmed’. According to Madden, many parents hesitate to confiscate phones as punishment because they want their kids to stay in contact with them. They also have a problem saying “no” to a phone, even for kids in elementary school, where it has become a status symbol.3 Moreover, many kids will hesitate to report any incidents to their parents for fear that their phone or online privileges will be taken away.

There are several styles of digital parenting that can be found between these extremes. Following are some of them:

I pay – I decide!

Some parents take the attitude that as long as they are paying – for the devices, the internet access, for the cell phone – they get to decide on the level of monitoring or restriction. And if the kids aren’t happy with the rules – they can choose to be without!

To enforce this policy parents may change the wifi password daily or make sure cell phones are charged outside their kids’ bedrooms overnight, so kids won’t have access during the night.

Trust but Verify

More moderate child safety advocates have traditionally promoted a “trust but verify” approach to kids’ online activities. But nowadays with so many applications and devices parents are finding that nearly impossible. PC's, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and even the iPod touch all offer kids a way to connect. Numerous online destinations and applications are available, starting with Facebook, YouTube, and on to Formspring, Chatroulette, Instagram, Skout (a flirting app!), Snapchat, and even FruitNinja (with its private chat feature). And then there are the multiple Facebook groups that kids join, as well as school-based networks such as MyBigCampus. All of these ever changing options make it very difficult for parents to follow and monitor their kids’ online activities.

Open and Honest

This parenting style is the choice of parents who understand the need and have decided to monitor their kids’ online activities, but don’t want to go behind their backs, who understand that an open and sincere discussion is the way to go. When parents don’t reveal in advance that they will be monitoring their kids’ online activities, it will probably feel like an invasion of privacy to the child. This means having an upfront conversation with the children about the dangers of the online world and explaining how they plan to monitor their online activity. Parents should stress that they are doing this not because they don’t trust their kids but because they want to keep them safe from dangers they may not be aware of. Some topics to discuss include:

  • Access to a computer and the Internet at home is a privilege and a convenience – not a right
  • The responsibilities that accompany those privileges
  • When and how often they can use the computer and Internet
  • Full disclosure of all accounts and passwords is a requirement
  • Parents should inform their kids that they will be checking all of the accounts periodically

So, which style is the best?

It really depends. On the kind of communication you’ve had with your kids up till now. On the kind of parenting you’ve practiced so far, on the age of your kids, and a lot of other factors.

Obviously, not doing anything because it may be invading their privacy is not the way to go. Having said that, remember that keeping tabs on your kids and what they do online is not spying, it’s good parenting. It will keep your children safe. The internet is not private, it’s public. So, if your child is posting information for the world to see, then you should be free to see it as well!

Monitoring is not spying. It means:
  • Keeping tabs on your child
  • Checking in on their activity
  • Keeping an eye out for their safety
It’s always important to keep open communication with your children. To talk, to explain about the dangers, to explain why you’ve chosen to monitor what they do online. You can try allowing your children to open a social media account only if they share their passwords. That’s one way to go.

But alongside communication and asking for their passwords there are technological aids. PureSight Owl can help you monitor your kids online activities, decide and enforce an internet time quota, and receive alerts when something suspicious is happening online – whether they are trying to enter an inappropriate website (porn, violence, anorexia, to name a few), whether someone is using abusive language when chatting online with them, or whether they have friended a suspicious contact on Facebook. Click to find out how.

Be a responsible parent. Protecting your children when they are online is not spying!


Tags: online child safety, safe internet use, monitoring, privacy

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Real Life Story

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Cyberbullying can have devastating consequences. Suicide is one. Read about some kids who have taken their lives because they were cyberbullied…

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