By Dr. Laura Markham
It’s a scary world out there, and all parents worry at times that their children may end up in trouble they can’t handle. Not surprisingly, there’s an app for that! Parents can monitor kids’ phone texts, track their travels using GPS, recreate their chat history by monitoring their keystrokes, and stalk them on Facebook. But do these technological solutions come at a cost?
There are no easy answers in the debate about online privacy, whether you’re talking about families or governments. But any teenager will tell you that having parents secretly monitor them destroys trust and makes them less likely to confide in you. It encourages them to become better liars. They know more about technology than we do, and if they decide to outsmart you, they usually can.
Luckily, snooping isn’t the only, or even the best, way to keep your child safe. The research is very clear: the more parents talk with kids about online risks, the less likely kids are to get into trouble.
When you first give your children any new responsibility, naturally you prepare them so that they can be successful. Whether your child is learning to use the potty, walking to school alone, or starting to use facebook, you’ll be very involved in the beginning–and then not involved at all, once he demonstrates that he can handle that new responsibility.
With each new technology, agree on rules, review daily how your child is handling her new responsibility, coach her when she hits bumps, and ask her a lot of questions about the choices she’s making. For example:
- When your child starts using the computer, set it up in the heart of your home, not in their bedroom.
- When your child begins to go online, install Google Safe Search and possibly more robust parental controls, depending on how present you can be to supervise.
- When your child begins to use social media, set up appropriate privacy settings and have many conversations about what can and can’t be shared online, the permanence of online posting, being a good cyber-citizen, etc. Review their social media accounts with them daily. Be sure they are only online friends with people whom they are also friends with in real life.
- When your child gets their first cell phone, sign an agreement with them about texting safety and etiquette. At the end of each day, sit down with them to review how they used their phone, including the choices they made about texting or going online. Keep the phone in the family charging center in a central space at night, not in your child’s room.
Have constant discussions about technology usage, and monitor daily until you’re convinced that your child can handle each responsibility. Then, tell your children they don’t need to sit down with you for a daily review any more, but you’ll be monitoring, just as you need to know where they go after school and who they hang out with. Tell them that you will never post on their page, but you need them to friend you on all their social accounts. Then, on a regular basis, check in to see your child’s online persona. If anything concerns you, have a conversation.
Notice that I’m suggesting that your monitoring should be completely transparent, just as when you ask him what he did after school. You are the parent, and you have a right to know what your child is doing online. But breaking your child’s confidence by secretly reading her texts or emails is as bad as when your mom read your diary. (Remember how you never forgave her for that?)
That doesn’t mean that you never have a right to invade your child’s privacy. Sometimes kids do get in over their heads and parents need to search their rooms, their computers, or their phones. But you don’t do that without a warning.
If your child is struggling in his life, you’ll know it. You’ll see worrying changes in mood or behavior. Start by connecting with your child, non-judgmentally, to express your concern. Tell him what you see (Are his grades falling? Is he suddenly hanging with a new group of kids or missing soccer practice?) Tell him why you’re worried. Ask him what’s going on, and then bite your tongue while he talks. Hopefully, you’ve been working to stay connected, and he feels comfortable talking with you. If not, you have some repair work to do.
Use this conversation as a way to let your child know you’re concerned, and that he can talk with you about anything. If you suspect that he’s using drugs or looking at pornography, bring it up and ask him directly, as non-judgmentally as you can. Remind him that as his parent, you do reserve the right to monitor his technology use, and give him the opportunity to come clean, before you consider snooping.
And if your child is functioning well in her life, and you have no reason to think there is a problem? Resist the impulse to snoop. Her diary is open on her desk…you’re curious to see what websites she’s been visiting…you wonder what kinds of texts she’s exchanging with her latest crush. No. Just no. Your child has given you no reason to break her confidence. Don’t do it.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. You can find her online at AhaParenting.com.