Today’s New York Times article about how some parents are using monitoring software to keep an eye on the digital activities of their kids has rekindled the debate over how appropriate such tactics are and at what point such activity starts to seem less like monitoring and more like spying.
The article offered numerous examples of the tools that are now available to parents who want to dig a little deeper into their children’s online lives. Some of those tools – like apps that block texting while driving – are eminently sensible and have an immediate personal safety objective. Others – like word-search software that looks for sex or drug references on kids’ Facebook pages – are more contentious.
The fact that children can get into trouble in the digital age is undeniable. Just last week I highlighted the story of three teens who were victims of sexual assaults after making contact with their alleged attackers via a popular “social discovery” app. And we are all well-versed in the potentially tragic consequences of cyberbullying and other online harassment.
Perhaps surprisingly, most of the parents featured in the article appear to engage in these monitoring activities with the full knowledge and even consent of their children. One teen was even quoted as saying she felt safer for it – “like I’m being watched over.”
Interestingly, the 200-plus comments that the Times’ article attracted online appear to be about equally divided between individuals who are sympathetic to parents who closely monitor their kids online and those who suggest such activity is going too far. Many critics cite children’s right to privacy, particularly as they get older. Others wrote about “the good old days,” when kids were allowed to get on with the difficult task of growing up by themselves and had to learn from their own mistakes. (Although mistakes in the good old days never resulted in an embarrassing YouTube video with 5 million views!)
What was missing in the article – and the comments – was any reference to the widely varying personalities and maturity levels of the individual children involved. It was as if parents only had two choices – they either monitored or they didn’t monitor – without consideration of whether their child was at risk.
Children who are not risk-takers, who are smart and sensitive, and who care about relationships with others both on- and offline, are usually deserving of a level of trust that is very different from a natural risk-taker, someone who may be sexually adventurous, or someone who exhibits a particular vulnerability. More often than not, a child’s behavior online will mirror their behavior offline: if your son is a bully in the schoolyard, then it’s possible he could be a cyberbully as well; if your daughter is sexually adventurous in real life, then expect the same type of behavior on Facebook.
So my only observation to parents tempted to read every text their daughter sends or crawl over every web site their son visits is to step back and consider how they behave when not glued to an iPad or smartphone. If they don’t need monitoring closely offline, then you can probably cut them a little slack online as well.
Do you monitor your child’s behavior online? What tools do you use? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom and Kiwi Commons!