The recent revelations of how government agencies track cell phone records and e-mail exchanges has set off a firestorm of how much surveillance is justified, but when it comes to parents snooping on their kids’ Internet activities, experts say there is no limit.
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According to Neil Rubenking, lead security analyst for PC Magazine, many parents have started engaging in government-style surveillance of their kids, with and without their child’s knowledge, over safety concerns. He says the monitoring tends to start when children get their first smartphone or Facebook account and that the trend leans towards more at-risk kids.
“It’s always been, ‘If you feel you have to do it,’” Rubenking says. “What parents are really concerned about is their kids’ social media—that they are being bullied or bullying.”
The amount of monitoring varies, with some parents only reviewing emails and online interactions, and others tracking every call, text message and even their kid’s location.
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Monitoring technology continues to evolve to help parents keep a watchful eye on their kids. For example, Social Shield flags posts, photos and friends that might cause issues for kids and lets parents monitor their children on social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
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“It sends you alerts if it detects risky-sounding materials,” Rubenking says. “If they get a friend [online] whose profile age is quite a bit older, you would get an alert.”
Social Shield does require user buy in since it requires children’s profile logins to set up.
Parents worried about their children ruining their future education and employment prospects by what they are posting online can also get a little help.
SafetyWeb, which retails for $100, collects social networking accounts and all available public information online about a child. It also collects “family information” on phone family plans and parental Facebook accounts, and can alert parents about ‘dangerous events’ via emails or texts, Rubenking says.
“This is for parents who don’t feel like spying on their kid,” he says. “It’s searching publicly-available social media. It can help you protect their privacy online and help you set up more private settings for them.”
For parents who want to go uber-stealth, Rubenking suggests WebWatcher, a keylogger and computer monitoring software, which allows parents to see all messages, keystrokes, screen shots and websites their kids visit. Triggers and real-time alerts of any suspicious activity will be sent to parents, including “alert words,” and can also block or time-limit certain programs, without a child ever knowing. This product sells for $169.95.
Other technology takes spying and monitoring a step further with geo tracking. iHound Software allows parents to geo-fence a kid on a smartphone, monitoring where they should be and where they actually are at certain times of the day. You can get an email alert, for example, when your child gets to school. The product is $3.99 a year.
“And if they wander out of your defined area, you get an alert,” he says.
How Much Privacy Do Kids Deserve?
One person who believes kids need to give their consent for such monitoring is Bob Lotter. It may seem strange, however, seeing as Lotter is founder and CEO eAgency, whose product MyMobileWatchDog provides parents with the technology to monitor their kids—but the children are made aware every time they turn on their device.
“I am fundamentally against any form of spying, as spying infers monitoring without the other persons knowledge or consent,” he says.
The software is installed on a child’s smartphone, usually when they first receive it around age seven or eight, Lotter says. It acts as a remote control of sorts for parents, who can block application downloads, filter Internet access and limit times when texting is available. This runs $4.99 a month per child.
More importantly, you can monitor who comes into your child’s life, via their phone, he says.
“The phone syncs with a parental app and synchronizes contacts,” Lotter says. “If someone calls who is not on an approved list, or sends a message or a photo, it goes straight to the parents phone as well.”
This information is archived, he says, as most parents don’t want to sit and read every text or joke their child sends or received. The product has led to the arrests of more than 3,000 predators, as well, and recently added location tracking.
“If your child isn’t home from school one day, you can check these archives to see who they have been talking to,” he says. “You can intervene at the first opportunity possible. Location is a threat just like strangers are, this allows you to protect them if someone comes into their life that you don’t know.”
But Should You Start? And how to Stop.
This type of surveillance is similar to parents reading their children’s private diaries and journals to find out what they were up to in the past, says Elaine Heffner, psychotherapist and author of Good Enough Mothering. The problem is that once kids find out, trust can be ruined for good.
“It’s destructive to generalize who should and shouldn’t do this,” Heffner says. “The goal of every parent is to build up trust with their child. And it’s important for kids to feel they do have a sense of privacy and independence.”
Doing things behind your parents’ back is somewhat of a rite of passage, Heffner says, and important for development.
“Part of growing up is feeling like you are doing something behind your parents’ back,” she says. “It’s a trade off. But it is a worrisome time to be raising your child. Parents have to set realistic limits.”
Heffner says setting ground rules from the start and being open with your kids is the way to go, especially when it comes to monitoring.
“Set expectations of what you think is fair, and meet somewhere in the middle,” she says.
Lotter agrees and says that when parents attempt to use the products as a punishment, it doesn’t go over as well. Most parents wind up cutting this monitoring off once kids turn 15 or 16, which for some is even scarier.
“Monitoring can help kids with peer pressure and in most cases works really well,” he says. “You won’t get a protest from an eight-to-eleven-year-old. Most parents make the deal that if you are smart, they won’t intervene.”