Parents: Spying on Your Kids Online is Taking the Easy Way Out

With government monitoring of the internet in the news extensively of late (and only the Guardian seeming to mind), it’s perhaps not surprising to also see a lot of articles encouraging parents to use the latest tools to spy on their kids online. From outright monitoring and blocking to tools that analyse metadata and content types to provide parents with information to ‘confront their kids with’, parents have a wide range of options. For many families, however, these tools pose the risk of being just another modern excuse to be a bad parent and a way to replace trust and education with friction and dishonesty.

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Previous Generations Faced Similar Challenges Offline

If you think back to your time as a child, you’ll soon see that parents have always faced similar challenges. It’s always been important to keep children away from predators. Pornography has always existed in our society and there has always been a need to try to reduce the negative impact it can have on some young people’s lives. Kids have always tried to watch movies that perhaps their parents would prefer they skipped for another five years or so.

Parents a generation or two ago had no way to cast the net of pervasive monitoring over their kids. They went out to cycle with their friends, and perhaps one friend’s father left his pornography unlocked and poorly hidden so they popped around to that house when the parents were out. Maybe they caught a quick violent movie from the drawer under the TV and then popped back to the park where their parents had to trust that they would know to stay away from any suspicious adults. The only way a parent had to keep their kids safe was to be a good parent. To teach them good values, spend time understanding their desires, worries and thoughts and help them make the right choices because they want to and know they are the right choices not because they are being spied on and are having their development curtailed.

I’m sure everyone reading this remembers the poor kid with the ridiculous parents who wouldn’t let him/her out of their sight for two minutes. The parent who always stayed at kids parties to ‘help out’ because they couldn’t possibly trust the other parents and party venue to uphold their strict rules. The parent who never let their child go to the park to play, socialise outside of school or stay over at friends houses. The parent that wants to control every aspect of their child’s life, without ever understanding their need to grow up, develop and become their own person is being stifled, probably permanently causing psychological issues at the same time.

Remember how sorry you felt for that kid?

The Modern Equivalent of Those Awful Parents

The problem with technology, and the way we use it, is that often things which seem quite innocent would be hugely unacceptable if the identical ‘real word’ action was taken. Many parents who would have ridiculed the parent following their child everywhere, are happy to do so online. They are totally happy to abdicate responsiblity for understanding what their children are viewing to a metadata tool that makes sure they are doing happy things online. This tool is an example of that kind of thing:

http://www.springwise.com/browser-plugin-tracks-kids-online-activity-good-mental-health/

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There are much more aggressive tools than this one – including those that encourage parents to spy on e-mail, log their children’s keystrokes, as well as their entire internet history and blocking certain sites. Imagine being that child when everyone at school is chatting about the ‘crazy skate park’ video they were checking out last night on social media that they’d never seen because some tool blocked it as ‘violent pornography’ by mistake. Worse yet, imagine confronting your child for the first time about their internet use only to find that the ‘sexual content’ identified by the tool was an online review of a harmless TV show the entire family watches that just happened to have one or two suggestive, but harmless, phrases.

Head down this road and you’re fast on the way to becoming the online equivalent of that awkward, embarrassing, fool that you’d be laughing at in the ‘real world’ for stalking their kid and not giving them a chance to grow.

Ignoring Your Child – Worse Than Stalking?

There are two further big problems with relying on spying technology to supervise your children online. One of them is that kids today are pretty smart, probably smarter than you, when it comes to computer technology. They may well quickly be able to bypass your monitoring when they wish to providing you with a lovely profile of a studious child that reads only history sites whilst in reality you have no idea what they are up to.

There is also the modern equivalent of the unlocked and unhidden pornography – the unsupervised computer at a friend’s house. Usually a friend tech-savvy enough to clear their tracks. Quickly you’re realising that you need to extend your supervision into the real world not just your home computer if you’re to maintain these rules. But you already think that behaviour is ridiculous – things in the real world often seem ridiculous that we think are fine online.

So What is the Solution?

The solution for parents is the same as it’s always been. It’s not placing a bug in their room, following them everywhere they go and refusing to let them out of your sight. Attempting (and probably failing) to do the technological equivalent might free up some more TV time while your kids are surfing (and maybe not viewing what you think they are) but it won’t help them make the right decisions for themselves.

Hopefully you were brought up by parents who helped you understand what’s right and what’s wrong. Hopefully when you made some mistakes (why should we allow ourselves huge deficiencies and judge kids so harshly when they make one error of judgement?) your parents were there to support you and help you avoid it again in future. Hopefully you’ll do the same for your family – support, teach and nurture rather than spy, and delegate figuring out how they feel online to some tool.

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