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Is it Ever OK to Spy on Your Kids

Is it ever okay to spy on your kids? I expect that many people will react strongly to that question, one way or the other. That was my intention. I’ll start off by saying that I don’t believe it’s ever okay to “spy” on your children. I do believe that it’s okay to oversee what they’re doing online. It’s every parent’s responsibility to look out for and protect their children from harm in all things. That’s the job we took upon ourselves the moment they were born.

Why is spying wrong, but overseeing okay, then? Spying is done covertly, while overseeing is done openly. I think it’s a fair assessment that most teenagers and even tweens don’t want to be smothered by their parents. That’s true offline as well as online. That doesn’t mean that you’re not involved with your kids are doing. Just as you would know who their friends are in the neighborhood, look out the window to see what your kids are doing outside, and ask their friends’ parents if they behaved while at their house, you would take similar steps online to see if they are safe and behaving properly. This isn’t digital parenting – it’s parenting, plain and simple.

Parents should keep an eye on what their kids are doing online. They shouldn’t be Helicopter Parents, who hover over their children, though. This can intimidate them and prevent them from growing as a person. It’s also unrealistic to expect that any parent could watch over a child 24/7, even if they only have one child. Technology literally allows for 24 hour access to the Web, so it’s just not an option.

That said, children should realize that their parents will be involved in helping their children mature, doing what’s necessary to protect them from harm. By observation of how their child acts, most parents can tell when something is bothering their children. When this becomes a concern, parents need to get more actively involved.

Reasons Why a Parent May Want to Oversee What Kids are Doing Online

There are many reasons why parents might need to get more involved in what their children are doing online. And while casual oversight may be enough to help see if anything wrong is happening, it’s still a good thing to take additional steps towards getting involved in their online world. Here are some things to be on the lookout for or reasons why a parent should be more involved:

  • Changes in Behavior

  • Questions of Inappropriate or Questionable Behavior

  • Verified Inappropriate Behavior

  • Better Safe than Sorry

Changes in their behavior are a major red flag. The Cyberbullying Research Center has created a great list of things to look for to help identify if your child is being targeted or performing cyberbullying. If a parent observes these kinds of changes, more involvement is probably warranted.

If a parent is presented with accusations by someone or sees activity of a questionable nature, then parents need to get involved. Just be sure to accept any and all accusations or questionable activity at face value and even with a grain of salt before taking actions that might be regretted later. It may be a misunderstanding on the accuser’s part, your child’s part or even your own. Putting something in proper context is key to understanding its meaning. Slang, humor and sarcasm are rarely as easy to understand in written form compared to hearing it spoken. That’s why screenplays always describe the intent for an actor, to say the words as the author meant them to be said.

Just ask comedienne Gilbert Gottfried, who has a history of posting questionable content online. So much so that he was fired from at least one job because of what he posted. In his own words, "I was born without a censor button. My mouth and now e-mail will continue to get me into trouble."

Naturally, if a child has a history of committing inappropriate behavior online, then it should not come as a shock to them that their parents will be on the lookout for more. At that point, they give up any expectations of privacy until they have earned their parents’ trust again.

Even so, the “better safe than sorry” approach is always an option. Our daughter keeps a diary and while I have never looked into it, we’ve flat out told her that should we ever have a need to look at it, we will do so without hesitation or apology. It would take an exceptional set of circumstances for my wife or me to do so, but we reserve the right and our daughter knows it.

The same should be true for online activity. Our daughter is not yet old enough to use social media, but when the time comes, she will be required to provide us with all sign-on credentials so that we can sign onto her accounts if we feel the need. Again, I wouldn’t do so lightly, but better safe than sorry.

Last week, I was giving a cyber safety presentation in New Jersey and one of the attendees asked me what a parent should do if a child refused to provide the information. First, if a parent tried signing on and the password was no longer valid, that alone does not mean that the child is hiding something. They may have changed the password because they were afraid it was hacked or simply as a matter of maintaining good password management. They may even have closed the account.

Still, don’t tip your hand to your child by calling or texting them and asking for the password. If they are hiding something, then that would give them time to hide/delete anything that they wouldn’t want you to see. Instead, wait until they are with you in person and ask them to provide it to you right then and there. If they refuse, that’s a problem.

Ways to Oversee What Kids are Doing Online

There are quite a few ways for parents to see what their kids are doing online. Some of them are pretty basic, while others will require an investment in time and maybe some money:

  • Connect/Friend/Follow Your Kids

  • Monitor their Accounts

  • Monitor their Friends Accounts

  • Monitoring Software

  • Signing on As Your Kids

Start by following, connecting, friending your kids online, if possible. Not all apps allow it, but most do. In this way, you should be able to see most, if not all of what they do online. Even as a friend on Facebook for example, users have the option in their privacy settings to exclude specific people from receiving their updates in their own incoming feeds.

As often as needed, go visit their profile and see what kind of information they’ve posted online. This is important because their update may have scrolled past in your incoming feed, so you may have missed it. This is very likely if the parent has quite a few friends/followers themselves. Take a look at the updates and pictures they’ve posted for yourself.

Next, visit the accounts of their friends. Depending on their privacy settings, you may not be able to see what they do online, but it can’t hurt. They may post content that includes your child that would not normally show up in your incoming feed because they did not tag your child – perhaps intentionally.

There are many different kinds of software that can help parents keep their kids safe. The biggest distinction that separates the brands is if the emphasis is on monitoring activity or prevention. Despite what I’ve said so far, I prefer the type that focuses on monitoring the child’s activities over preventing them from doing as they want.

VISR is one app that takes this approach. This site lets kids use any site that they wish but sends a report to parents if it see anything questionable. They describe it on their website as, “We only notify you of issues, keeping the rest of your kid’s activity private.”

The other approach sets limits on which sites the kids can visit, limits the amount of time they can use their devices and so on. While I prefer the previous type, I would not presume to tell a parent what they need to get for their child. Examples of this approach include Cyber Patrol, Net Nanny and Parent Blocked.

My last suggestion is to make sure that you have the sign on credentials so that you can see what they’re doing online. I recommend this as a last means of protecting your children, but an important step. As I mentioned above, it’s a last resort kind of approach for me, but your own situation may be different.

Check their incoming messages, see what groups they’ve joined and review their list of friends. Also be sure to ask them if they’ve joined any new sites or started using any new apps. Today’s teenagers are becoming far more savvy when it comes to keeping parents in the dark. To that end, they’ve begun using “ghost” or “vault” apps to hide things from parents.

Knowing if your child has a ghost app installed can be tricky. They appear like any other useful app and even function like them. Some, like the one shown below, perform as a calculator to hide their true nature. That is, until a secret PIN/code number is entered in the device.

The Parents’ Response is Everything!

What might appear to be inappropriate or questionable might be harmless and overreacting will not be productive. In fact, it will probably make the situation worse.

In fact, I never recommend that parents reply to anything that their kids post online, even if it’s a good response. Criticizing your children will almost certainly cause a rift between you. Praise can do the same thing. Not only would your comments be visible to anyone who can see your children’s posts, but it remains there unless someone deletes it or it fades down into obscurity when additional postings are made.

Even in that case, a parent’s posting would remain there for anyone who takes the time to look for it and in some cases, is very easily found. To make matters worse, if someone else comments on the posting, no matter how long ago it originated, it will most likely get noticed by anyone who had previously interacted with the update.

Getting your children to open up to you about what they’ve been experiencing online can be difficult. Avoid asking questions that can be answered by a single word especially “yes” or “no”. Instead, ask open ended questions that will require thought and an extended response. I’ve put together a list of 16 such questions. My favorites are:

  • What would you do if someone tried to cyberbully you?

  • What would you do if you saw someone cyberbullying another person?

  • How would you feel if I were to sign into your social media accounts right now?

  • What would you like to learn about when it comes to social media?

As parents, we have an obligation to keep our kids safe in all things. We do not have an obligation to be their friend (no pun intended). Hopefully, you know have some ways to do just that

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cyber safety advocate for several years. He is an adjunct professor at Philadelphia University, where has been teaching several classes that involve using technology to improve the quality of their schoolwork.

As the founder of Safety Net, Joe provides a variety of presentations on improving the online experience, both in better educational performance and in cyber safety. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that got him involved in helping others in the area.

His work on cyber safety has been published by the Family Online Safety Institute, the Social Media Club, Calkins Media and more. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity, which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016.

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