Do you really want to spy on your kid online? Should you?
People like Jamie Oliver unashamedly monitor their kids’ smartphones, which is not to say it’s right
It’s the great modern parenting dilemma: how far off the metaphorical leash ought we allow our children to roam when it comes to navigating an increasingly complex technological world? For just as views on when to let a child venture out unattended vary widely, so too does parental thinking on how closely monitored their online activity ought to be.
The levels of freedom youngsters are afforded in either area rarely seem to align. Little wonder, says a friend, pointing out how different the two environments are. She happily trusts her 12-year-old twin sons to safely take the bus into town. Yet she worries deeply about the trouble they could get into using their smartphones, despite being physically safe inside their bedrooms. And so she surreptitiously monitors the conversations they hold in cyberspace, going through every message they’ve sent or received while they sleep.
I argue that she might as well hide behind a bush when they meet their mates at the skate park so she can eavesdrop on their conversations there as well.
“I’m just keeping them safe,” my friend insists, adamant that there are far more dangers lurking in cyberspace than our children have to face in the real world. After all, an adult with terrible intentions can’t hide behind a fake profile when approaching a child in the street, while face-to-face bullying rarely gets as nasty or escalates anything like as quickly as it can online.
Then there is the threat of a child seeing pornographic or violent imagery, which is never more than a few clicks away, inadvertently or otherwise.
“I need to make sure that they’re not looking at or saying things they shouldn’t. And I don’t want to rely on two young boys to spot something untoward,” she says. “Also, if they are being bullied – or, as bad, bullying – then I can help to nip it in the bud.”
She is right, of course, but it still feels like espionage to me. As do the myriad parental monitoring apps now available to download on to your child’s cellphone, allowing unfettered access to their online activity.
I prefer to carry out occasional spot checks, randomly asking my own 12-year-old to open up a message in front of me; going through the apps that she has on her phone; getting her to take me through how well she knows the people she chats to online.
I think my friend is overzealous; she believes my approach is naively laissez-faire. Surely there is a middle ground.
“Absolutely,” says Liz Stanton, a former police officer who advises parents and schools on this subject via her role with the Internet safety organisation Get Safe Online. The first thing she recommends is an appreciation that our kids are digital natives.
“This is their world,” Stanton explains. “And it doesn’t scare them the way it does us. Technology is part of their everyday life – we shouldn’t presume they’re abusing it, or being abused, just because that’s possible.”
Parental blocks and filters that will stop children from viewing dangerous or unsavoury content have their place, she says. You can also set up programmes that automatically disconnect their phones from the online world at set times. But the most effective tool any parent can employ in helping our children be good digital citizens is talking to them about how to be just that.
“Smartphones are changing how and where children go online, and we have to accept we’ll never be able to monitor them 24/7, no matter how much we might want to try,” says Stanton. “You might well have every filter and firewall imaginable, and the best monitoring apps downloaded on to your child’s phone, but they only have to go to a friend’s house where there’s none of that control to be exposed to everything you're so frightened of.
“An ongoing dialogue that encourages them to self-monitor is going to be far more effective than anything an app can achieve. Just as we teach them how to safely cross the road, we need to educate them on how to use their smartphones wisely. Close monitoring can't be the only tool you rely on.”
Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell, a psychologist, agrees, saying a child who feels constantly watched can unhealthily internalise the idea that they’re neither trusted nor safe – in either the real or digital world.
Location monitoring apps are popular with many parents (including Jamie Oliver, who admitted last week that he “spies” on his children with an app called Life360), but at what age do you disable them, she asks. And they only work as long as your child’s phone is switched on.
“If they don’t want you to know where they are, they’ll simply switch it off,” she says. “That ends up promoting deceitful behaviour, when what you really need to work on is building trust so that when they tell you where they are you can safely believe them.”
- © The Daily Telegraph