How to Monitor Your Kids Without Turning into the NSA

Dan Tynan
February 3, 2014
How to Monitor Your Kids Without Turning into the NSA

Should you spy on your kids? The technology to do it is certainly cheap and plentiful. If you want to, you can install software on their computers that copies you on everything they type and everything they look at. You can turn their phones into digital bloodhounds that map everywhere they go. You can install cameras in your home and watch your kids from any Internet device.

All of that is perfectly legal. Parents are within their rights to monitor their minor children on any device they use, notes Tatiana Melnik, a data privacy and security attorney in Tampa, Fla. Practically speaking, however, it’s not as simple as it sounds, especially as your little darlings morph into surly adolescents. Do it badly, and it can backfire on you in a big way.

Whether you choose to use tech to monitor your kids is something is only you can decide. But if you do, here are a few simple rules.

DON’T: Be sneaky

Many parents who decide to monitor their kids make the mistake of keeping it a secret, notes Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Boston and co-author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s. Then, when the kids inevitably find out that their parents have been spying on them, it’s not pretty. Not only will your kids do everything in their power to subvert the spy tech, but the move could also poison your relationship with them over the long haul.

“Whenever the tweens and teens I have counseled have discovered that their parents have been spying on them, it has almost always caused the kids to feel betrayed, angry and more secretive,” Kendrick says. “Kids should never be able to conflate the secret actions of the NSA’s spying with those of their parents.”

DO: Start early

If you plan to be involved in your kids’ digital life (and you should), you need to start as early as possible to establish the ground rules, so they don’t come as an unwelcome surprise when your progeny hit their teens.

You should also involve your children in every step along the way, says Tim Woda, co-founder of uKnowKids, a subscription service that allows parents to see what their children are doing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networks, as well as who they’re talking to and texting on their phones.

Woda knows the risks better than most; he started uKnowKids in 2009 after his then-middle-school-aged son was targeted by an online predator, who was later caught, prosecuted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

But uKnowKids won’t work without active participation by the kids themselves. They’ll need to fork over their social media passwords, and they can deactivate the mobile app at any time — at which point uKnowKids will send you an email. At the very least, that will prompt a discussion about why they object to being monitored, who’s paying for the phone and what the rules are.

DON’T: Get creepy

Just because you can read every text and see every photo your child sends doesn’t mean you necessarily should. You’ll need to draw clear boundaries, and redraw them later as the kids mature. In any case, merely knowing that you’re monitoring may be enough to deter them from oversharing or venturing too far into the dark side of the Internet.

When it comes to video surveillance, Michael Dunteman, who operates a security camera company outside of Chicago, says you should apply the same rules whether you’re monitoring kids or adults. Keep cams out of private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms, and put them at places that provide the best security for your household, such as doorways and common areas.

DO: A trial run

You could simply force your kids to accept your spying ways. But you’ll have more success persuading them to go along if you explain that it’s because you’re worried about them, not because you don’t trust them, Kendrick says.

“Admit you’re being a paranoid doofus,” he says. “Ask, ‘Can you humor me for a while until I get this out of my system?’ Kids love to be in the role of humoring their parents.”

Kendrick, who is deeply skeptical about the value of tech monitoring tools, also suggests framing it as a trial run, not a permanent installation. Talk frequently with your kids about what scares you about the Internet, and consider halting the monitoring if they demonstrate good judgment.

“You’d be amazed how articulate teens are about these things,” he says. “You might end up reassured that your child is less of a risk taker than you thought.”

DON’T: Assume technology will fix it

Even the most sophisticated technology is no substitute for talking about this stuff with your kids. But it does give you a great place to start the conversation.

“We like to think our service will help you to know what questions to ask your kids, but not necessarily give you all the answers,” Woda says. “For $10 a month you can’t expect us to do all your parenting.”  

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