Spying On Your Child: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Caron C. Andrews

Our children are growing up in a virtual world that simply didn’t exist when most of us were kids. Do you know how to work all the devices and gaming systems in your home? We all need to. We also need to know what our children are involved in online and if those things are dangerous to them. At the same time, we need to teach our kids about trust, honesty, self-control, and good decision-making skills. Where does the balance lie between spying on our children and all of these factors?

 The Good

One of the most basic roles of a parent is to keep children safe and protected. In the vast online world, we can provide a safety net and guidelines for our kids to reduce what they’re exposed to. Internet filters (read more about filters here) such as Net Nanny and K9 Web Protection can help keep our children from stumbling across, or deliberately accessing, inappropriate images and material online. Top Ten Reviews has compiled an Internet Filters Software Review that rank the top seven picks. Google SafeSearch and Google SafeSearch for Kids prevent adult content from coming through in online searches. YouTube has privacy and safety settings that allow parents to control the search options. PCs have built-in tutorials on how to set parental controls, which can be accessed by going to Control Panel/Parental Controls/Family Safety and Control Panel/User Accounts. For Macs, go to Apple.com under “Support” for tutorials on specific device models, or access them right from a device or computer. These tutorials show (in less than 5 minutes) how to turn these control options on and how to use them.

The four main cell phone providers, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint, each have parental controls that limit data usage, limit use by time of day, restrict web access, monitor texting, monitor usage, and have GPS trackers. Each of these tools can give parents a measure of peace and reassurance that our kids are safe.

PC Pandora is computer monitoring software that monitors, controls, and protects families online, addresses cyberbullying, records all activity done on the computer, takes screen shots so that you can see passwords, messages in instant message, sign-ins, logs, websites visited, and offers text-based data logs, all of which run stealthily. It gives parents a complete view of all activity on the computer.

 The Bad

Thankfully, the technology is there to allow spying on our children and his or her technology usage. But internet filters and parental controls only go so far—they can’t prevent every potential problem—and can give parents a false sense of security. And what about trust? What if we have great kids who generally do what they’re supposed to, get good grades, and follow family rules? Monitoring every movement our children make may give them the message that we don’t trust them and can lead to real problems in the relationship. What about a child’s right to privacy? Is there such a thing?

On the flip side, there are real dangers that kids can stumble across or look for. We parents have to know what’s out there—online predators, pornography, platforms for strangers to meet in the real world—and it’s up to us to educate ourselves about how kids access them and how we can restrict it. For example, the “Down” app encourages its users to “Kiss kiss bang bang – skip the chatting and get to smacking those lips!” It’s an app that is meant to find which of your friends are “down” with a sexual hook-up. “Puff,” or “blow skirt,” lets users get a peek up girls’ skirt by blowing into their phone’s microphone or swiping the touchscreen. The girl will even squeal if you continue to blow harder into the mic.

Perhaps even more frightening is that there are apps that hide other apps. “AppHider” hides any app you choose, making its icon disappear from the touchscreen. “Hide It Pro” hides pictures, videos, other apps, messages, and calls. “Poof” also allows the user to choose the apps to be hidden.

 The Ugly

What if parents choose not to engage in spying on a child? But then, what if parents do? Both can have serious consequences. If we’re not monitoring what our kids are doing online and on their devices, they are at greater risk of finding pornography, predators, and serious trouble. Kids can quickly get caught up in inappropriate pictures and videos, conversations, and interactions that could even lead to physical danger. We simply have to protect them. But spying on a child, especially if the child is unaware that he or she is being monitored, can increase or even cause rebellion. It can alienate the child from the parent and start a catch-22 cycle that creates the need for extreme spying where it didn’t exist before.

The bottom line is that we need to both trust and monitor our kids as well as teach them to self-monitor. A good solution could be found in the middle. Internet filters and parental controls on devices are preventative measures we can take to keep our kids safe. Perhaps the more invasive tools like GPS tracking and text and email screening could be introduced if a child has done something incriminating that requires more intrusive methods. Each set of parents and kids can come up with their own rules; based on level of trust and trustworthiness and parenting philosophy. All of these factors have to be considered as we decide if, how, when and where to spy on our children.

Curious to learn more? Check out our books, 30 Days of Sex Talks; How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography, which is also available in Spanish; and 30 Days to a Stronger Child.

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