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Much of the Internet safety conversation these days seems to revolve around helping parents find better and better ways to spy on their child’s every move. As if helicopter parenting wasn’t intrusive enough as it is, now we’re adding spy gadgets and monitoring software to the arsenal of weapons for parents who want to control every aspect of their child’s life. Unfortunately, there is very little conversation about the ethical consequences of this intrusive parental behavior, and whether or not it actually accomplishes the safety goals we all have in mind. Having a multitude of ways to spy on your child’s online activities may provide parents with a little extra peace-of-mind, but it comes at a cost.

Should Parents Spy on their Child’s Online Activities?

Our personal view is that you SHOULD NOT seek to constantly spy on your teen or monitor their Internet activities unless you have a specific reason to be doing so. Let us explain why we believe this is so important, and then we’ll offer some compromises that might satisfy helicopter parents while still offering their child some autonomy.

The Consequences of Parental Spying

  1. Over-controlling parents pay a price for their behavior

This sort of intrusive parenting tends to erode a child’s overall trust in you, which means they’ll be less likely to come to you when they’re really in trouble, which means you’re actually less-equipped to parent them in the ways they need. For a perfect example of this, go rent the movie “Meet the Fockers.” It’s a comedy, but one with a very true-to-life message: The over-controlling, over-reactive ex-CIA father who employs every sort of intrusive means available to him to spy on those he loves thinks he’s maintaining a firm handle on everything that goes on in his family. Yet for all his efforts to maintain this controlling “circle of trust,” he finds out at the end of the movie that everyone knew about his daughter’s pregnancy except him. For all his intrusive attempts at control, his actions resulted in the exact opposite effect: those he loved had learned to hide every issue of any significance from him, because they knew he could not be trusted to handle any disappointments that conflicted with his carefully crafted mirage about life. For all his spying, the end result is that he knew MUCH LESS about his children’s lives than others.

This is precisely what happens to intrusive, over-controlling parents: they lock themselves out of their child’s life on account of their micromanaging tactics. Kids learn that this over-controlling parent cannot be trusted to tactfully cope with any information that does not conform to their expectations. So when kids have significant issues come up in their lives, their friends will know, their teachers may know, other relatives may know, but you almost certainly will not, because you’ve established yourself as an unsafe outlet – someone who aims to control rather than offer support. Teens simply learn to maintain two identities: the real them, and the façade of the perfect, obedient child they enact to their parent.

Having your child’s trust is so important on multiple fronts, yet we constantly watch as parents flush this trust right down the crapper with their over-controlling tactics. Do you want to be the parent with a false peace-of-mind on account of the fact that you spy on your child’s texts or emails (which have been censored and stripped of meaningful content to appease you), or do you want to be the parent that actually knows what goes on in their child’s life, the type of parent a youth could talk to if they found themselves in trouble?

  1. There are many ways around censorship

A number of teens know how to hack web-monitoring or filtering software in order to bypass it. They have access to other computers at the library, school, or a friend’s house. They can borrow someone’s phone to send text messages. They can maintain dummy accounts and establish separate profiles; one for your eyes, and one that their friends see. No matter what type of censorship you might try to employ, there are always ways around it. These tools are speed bumps, not blockades, and they will not stop a determined teen who wants to bypass these controls.

  1. Controlling tactics don’t teach kids anything, and may only delay mistakes

These tactics don’t prevent mistakes, they only delay them. Kids will eventually turn 18 or otherwise move out from under the umbrella of your control, and over-controlling tactics quite regularly lead to a compensatory indulgence later on. So these parents who want to micromanage a child’s online life may end up only postponing irresponsible behavior until later, with disastrous consequences.

Kids these days use technology to express themselves, and they need a certain degree of privacy. How would you feel if someone were spying on your every thought? If someone was sneaking into your room to crack open your diary to read everything you wrote? This type of spying alienates your child, and given all the other ways kids can err or the ways they can find around this, it accomplishes very little in terms of actual safety. Instead, try some of the following compromises:

  • Distinguish between public and private postings as a means of laying ground rules. Public postings such as Facebook or blogs should be as open to parents as they are to acquaintances and strangers, but allow them privacy in private texts or chat conversations.
  • Set aside a time frame for a probationary period, such as 6 months or 1 year after they start using their Facebook page, during which you want to monitor the account. If they show the maturity to know what to post, back off and let them manage on their own.
  • Have your child add you as a Facebook friend so that you can view their postings. Just keep in mind, however, that many teens respond to this censorship by going behind your back to create a second account.
  • If you do have reason to check up on them, don’t go behind their back. Explain the reason you’re concerned, and do your search with them present.


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