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Is It Ever O.K. To Spy On Your Kids?

I’ve mentioned before that my ten-year-old son seems to have entered adolescence early. And while that solves certain problems, it opens up a...

I’ve mentioned before that my ten-year-old son seems to have entered adolescence early.

And while that solves certain problems, it opens up a host of others. Like how to monitor what he’s up to on the computer. Whereas that once amounted to limiting his time on Fifa 09, it now amounts to making sure that he’s not surreptitiously downloading Assassin’s Creed onto our iPhone.

So when I saw that his school was offering a free parenting discussion group about boys and the Internet, I thought, “Why not?” and went along.

I showed up, pen in hand, thinking that the nice lady offering the seminar was going to give me a list of websites I could visit and download all the appropriate Internet controls.

Wrong. While she did direct us to one or two websites, the very first point that she made was that however much you think you might be able to control what your kids do on the computer, you can’t. If they don’t see whatever it is you don’t want them seeing at your own home, they’ll see it at a friends’ home.

Or they’ll discover a way to get around the controls. One gentleman at the seminar noted that his 13-year-old was at Boarding School where the boys get their own rooms. Apparently, in his very first term, his son had not only gotten around the school’s firewalls for pornography and the like, the kid was actually administering them. (And I could *totally* see my computer-savvy child doing exactly the same thing.)

So takeaway point #1 from this meeting was that the best way to manage the Internet with a teenager is *not* to devise ever more secure locks, as I’d perhaps naively hoped. It was to start talking with your son or daughter…now. Talk to them about the kinds of images they might encounter on the web…talk to them about the kinds of people they might encounter on the web…talk to them about how to handle potentially inappropriate content when they are out of the home.

Which was, upon reflection, sort of reassuring.

But the meeting also raised some other interesting challenges for parenting teens.

There was one priceless moment where one of the Moms confessed that she’d discovered recently that her son, aged 10, had been Googling “Girls’ bottoms” on the Internet. The Mom’s response was to wait about a week and then give her son a book about human anatomy (without telling her son that she’d been monitoring his “history” on the Internet).

“You mean you’re spying on your son?” one Dad asked, in shock.

“Well, I wouldn’t call it spying,” this Mom responded. “It’s more like benevolent monitoring.”

“And you’re not going to tell him that you’re spying on him?” the Dad continued.

“No. If I tell him, then I won’t be able to keep checking up on his history. And I want to be able to do that.”

(Allow me to reveal that this exchange was quite possibly the closest I’d ever come to witnessing open conflict between two English people during my five years living in the U.K., and the journalist in me was lapping it up. More to the point, in a country where there’s one CCTV camera for every 32 people, the political implications of where you fall on “spying” vs. “benevolent monitoring” were hard to miss.)

Interestingly, about half of the parents in the room thought that checking up on your kids behind their backs was absolutely fine and could see themselves doing something similar. There was even one woman who thought that children shouldn’t have access to the Internet – at all! – before they were 14. (Sorry, honey, I’m deeply sympathetic, but I think that horse has left the barn.)

The other half of those assembled were less comfortable with this mom’s self-described “benevolent monitoring” and felt that – at a minimum – she should have told her son what she was doing.

I found myself somewhere in the middle. I don’t check my son’s email routinely, though when it’s open I do find myself glancing down at  his inbox to see if anything inappropriate has surfaced. On the other hand,  I do think that if you’re going to talk to your kid about sex, it’s probably best to do it directly rather than indirectly.

What do you think? Is it ever OK to spy on your kids – on the Internet or anywhere else? And should you tell them that you’re doing it?

Image: CCTV – 30 St. Mary Axe by chiselwright via Flickr under a Creative Commons license






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  1. Naomi May 9, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    Great column, Delia. We have 2 boys, age 12 & 15, both quite computer and Internet savvy. I’m under no illusions that I can completely protect them from either what’s out there or from their own curiosity. But we do have one very strict rule: no computers in your bedroom. All computer use has to be in a public part of the house — living room, dining room, etc. I frequently plop myself next to them and ask what they’re doing. It’s always homework, an online game, e-mail, or, in the case of my older son, correcting errors on Wikipedia! Of course there are times when the kids are home without a parent, and I do have some anxiety about that. But I think the boys do, to some extent, “police” each other. (A reason to have two kids that I hadn’t thought of when I was wondering whether to have a second kid!)

  2. Patricia May 9, 2011 at 10:52 pm #

    Good idea sharing – thanks for going to the meeting! I had to take each child as an individual. Oldest is a computer/math geek and we had to get her a computer when she was very young, because her hippy/alternative school was attempting to avoid computer. She now makes a living being very, very creative technically and of course designs my two blogs!

    Child number 2 has to be brought to the computer, she likes books better, but now loves to find travel ideas and houses for sale etc. Her interests are just not found in the scary sites and she is first to let you know when she discovers something by accident and as a school librarian in an elementary school with lots of behavioral problems…she monitors every computer in the building and speaks straight forwardly to all the kids – she is one tough teacher/ smart cookie. Her school has had no computer violations this year.

    Child Number 3 we had to explain why watching Paris have intercourse on the internet was not an okay thing – all of her friends put scary naked stuff on their my space pages…after a boy took her to the woods and nearly raped her while trying to get her drunk…she started to pay attention and take control of herself. She was addicted to the cell phone for awhile…at 25 she is finally getting stable and enjoying her work success and can see the problem with all the sex on the internet – she has become very private now…what worries me about her is that she will not talk about the scary things that did happen to her…and she says we are lying when we shared with her we hired a PI to track her and a friend, who turns out to me a HS girl pimping for visiting business men and navy dudes…we have the pictures….the school would not back us up, so we paid to have her moved to a new school and away from this girl…but then our child just disrupted the alarm system and went out the windows.
    There is only so much one can do
    Honest and straight forward conversation, right down to the values allows for good judgement finally to develop.

  3. Delia Lloyd May 10, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    @naomi-yes, we also follow that rule abt open doors (though boarding school story illustrates what happens when they go away and live on their own, at whatever age.) lucky you that your kids police each other-my daughter is always telling on my son when he plays a violent video game that he finds on line but i’m not sure he appreciates her intervention! @patricia-very sorry to hear of your troubles with your third child…you are right. In the end, there *is* only so much one can do.

  4. BigLittleWolf May 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    This is such a tricky issue, and the older they get, the harder it is. I do agree that talking to them is a great first step (earlier rather than later, and over and over, as time goes on). But there are instances when that “benevolent monitoring” is just one of the tough aspects of the parenting job.

    If a kid has given you reason to distrust them – even once – then you have reason to monitor more closely. If it has to do with something potentially dangerous (or illegal) – even more so. And I’m an advocate of continuing to talk while “benevolently monitoring.”

    It’s a matter of circumstance and degree. But it’s our job to keep kids safe. Even from themselves.

    • delialloyd May 11, 2011 at 6:52 am #

      well put, @BLW. I think I”m going to quote back that last line to my son the next time I find him doing some on the edge of not Okay…thanks for the wording and the sentiment!

  5. Rose May 12, 2011 at 1:01 am #

    If you are running Windows I think it’s prudent to set your child up on a account where they do not have administrator rights. It will reduce the number of “things” like viruses and spy ware that install themselves on their equipment, unless you like porn pop-ups on the family PC!

    The most useful thing I learned as a parent of a troublesome teen was that if you snoop you should not use what you find out to confront your child.

    I suppose if you discover he/she is assembling an arsenal for a Columbine-style assault you should take action, but for other more run-of-the-mill teen aged deviance you’ll have to live with your knowledge.

    If you confront them most likely they won’t quit whatever they’ve been doing that you don’t like, they’ll trust you less than they already do and (most importantly) they’ll hide it better.

    So unless you are calm enough to know stuff your kid is doing and not to confront them about it — don’t snoop!

    • delialloyd May 12, 2011 at 9:59 am #

      @rose-yes we did that with our son, over his protests. he loves computers and the idea of being an “administrator” but we knew that would become a problem down the road, potentially. i’m going to ponder your advice about not confronting them-agree that you don’t want to make the problem worse…

  6. daryl boylan May 17, 2011 at 2:02 am #

    The sticky “no-no”s have always been available to kids, of course; but having the stuff always there at home unlimitedly is new. I assume one just has to exercise reasonable supervision (yes, I know, define that to a 13-year old !)& accept that it is impossible to protect kids from all undesireable intrusions into private space.


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