To snoop or not to snoop, that is the question. With apologies to Shakespeare, that is the question that bedevils parents in our electronic age as much as Hamlet's existential angst did in the Middle Ages. While Hamlet was torn between the pain of his life and the uncertainty of death, what we're torn between involves something more precious than ourselves – our children. And what we're torn between is respecting their private lives and our fear of the great electronic unknown.
To Snoop ...
Vicki Courtney, parenting expert and author of Logged On and Tuned Out: A Non-Techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-Savvy Generation (B&H Books, 2007), makes no apologies for being a snoop, nor does she try to hide it from her children. Four years ago, she installed a program on the family computer to monitor their every keystroke. However, she says that watching them that closely was never her intent, nor does she think her actions are an invasion of her children's privacy, because, as she rhetorically asks, what privacy should they have?
"They live in my house, which I own and where I pay all their bills and am responsible for them," Courtney says. "I don't think it's acceptable to stalk every conversation your kid has, and that's not the goal. However, the fact that your kids know you have a presence and that you're stopping in from time to time to make sure everything is OK will keep them from doing something online they know you wouldn't want them doing."
What Courtney doesn't want her kids doing is pretty straightforward. She doesn't want them (particularly her daughter) posting provocative or inappropriate photos on their Web sites, giving their contact information to anyone they don't know or talking to someone who may be masking their true identity. For her, it's about protecting her children when they're at an age where their emotional maturity is not developed and they have poor impulse control. In fact, Courtney no longer monitors her two older children, a son who's 19 and in college, and her daughter, 17.
"I still monitor my 14-year-old, but with the older two I feel like if you can't trust them by that age you have bigger problems than just worrying about the Internet," Courtney says. She feels that her monitoring has gotten them through the more reckless adolescent years and given her time to teach them right from wrong.
Courtney tells parents that they have to find a balance and they have to be realistic. Once you do begin to monitor your child, don't go to him or her with every single thing you find that you wish they hadn't said. "When parents put it [monitoring software] on for the first time, they're often shocked to discover how teens really communicate," Courtney says. "They need to think back to when they were that age and the types of language they used when their parents weren't listening. Choose your battles wisely because if you go overboard it will do more harm than good."
Or Not to Snoop ...
Teen parenting expert Margaret Sagarese says that monitoring software is an invasion of your child's privacy, pure and simple. Sagarese, co-author of What Are You Doing in There?: Balancing Your Need to Know with Your Adolescent's Need to Grow (Broadway, 2003), understands why parents may turn to something as drastic as monitoring software, but thinks they need to rethink what may be a knee-jerk reaction to rapid technological advances.
"When we were young danger was something we could see, like a car coming down the street," Sagarese says. "Now everything seems to be a danger, from a lack of seatbelts on school buses to peanut butter in cup cakes. Parents no longer have reasonable, measurable boundaries, and it can be bewildering and overwhelming."
However, when you have a teen the question should not be, "Can I trust my teen?" but "Can my teen trust me?" Sagarese says.
"When your child does have a problem, they aren't going to go to the privacy police," Sagarese says. "If children have a parent who's a snooping lunatic and think their parent may overreact to a problem, they're much less likely to come to that parent."
Sagarese calls this type of monitoring a "phobia" that parents develop in response to the paranoia that seems to have infected our society thanks to lurid news stories that get 24/7 coverage. But overreacting to that takes it out of the context of your child in your home. If you're a parent who's so phobic that you feel you have to see every single thing they do, they'll never feel comfortable talking to you. Parents like that, Sagarese says, often can't put what they do find in context.
"Parents have to get over this posture that you can make all these decisions and you can dictate everything," Sagarese says. "You have to make your child a good decision maker."
Answering the Question
To make your child a good decision maker, start when they're young, says Thomas Blair, president of Safety4Kids (www.safety4kids.com). Kids as young as 3 now go on the Internet, and they shouldn't be allowed to just click around at will. In addition to supervision, make the Internet a safe place by using safety browsers such as SeeMore's Safety Browser, a free download that allows young children "freedom," but within parameters that the parent sets. These parameters can be expanded as the child grows, and, in conjunction with parental guidance, will help them learn how to use the Internet safely.
While Blair doesn't necessarily want his company to come out as for or against monitoring software, he personally feels that the kind of snooping software that Courtney uses leads to a more negative relationship.
"It's the parents' right to know what their child is experiencing, but we believe parents should be part of the process," Blair says. "Snooping is not the right approach because it doesn't represent a positive experience."
One caveat that all of our experts agree upon: Do stoop to snoop if you feel your child is somehow in danger, whether from drugs, a possible predator, suicidal tendencies or anything that may permanently damage your child. Sometimes snooping is the only way to get information from a secretive teen who's in trouble.
And, if you do choose to snoop, Spectorsoft (www.spectorsoft.com) makes several effective and highly recommend products. Company spokesperson Kasey Sellati says the software can be customized to be as intrusive as a parent wants. It can also be used not only to monitor activity and see what your child is doing, but when they're doing it. For parents who work, this can help them ensure that their child is doing homework before going online for entertainment.
However, Sellati notes that although the software can be put on in an undetectable mode to "sneak," that's not necessarily what her company recommends. Rather, she says, they think parents should let their kids know it's on there and use it as merely another tool to help them parent.
"If you're sneaking around spying on your child's every move, it's possible to make your child sneakier," Sellati says. "This is not all about the kids doing something bad on purpose; rather, it's to give parents a tool to watch for activities that might get their kids in trouble at an age when they don't have good impulse control and are easily fooled."
Sellati notes, as Blair did, that kids are getting online at younger and younger ages. The job of the parent is to find a balance between absolute control, which is never a good thing, and teaching children Internet safety and responsibility, which will carry over into their adult lives.
Tips for Keeping Track
Whether or not our experts agree that monitoring software should be used – with or without a child's knowledge – they all did agree on some basic guidelines for parents in raising a technologically savvy child:
- Learn the technology. Understand how My Space, Facebook and instant messaging work. Get a My Space account and add your child as a friend. Get an instant messenger account to communicate with your children when you or they are out of town or at college.
- Give kids an Internet etiquette lesson. Talk about the difference between public and private behavior. With the rise of the badly behaving starlets and lurid talk and reality shows, kids don't seem to understand what's appropriate and what's not any longer. "When we think about the Internet we think about predators and the issues are much wider than that," Sagarese says. "We have to bring the same ethics and dignity to our Internet that we do to our real lives."
- Don't talk to strangers. This classic bit of advice is still valid in the electronic world.
- Make sure they understand that the Internet is forever. Kids often can't see past this one second, but pictures and words posted by your child are in cyber space forever. They remain for parents, grandparents and even, probably, their own children and grandchildren to see. Also, for older teens and young adults, remember that the majority of companies now Google prospective employees. You don't want them to see pictures of you in a thong or funneling beer.
- Don't be a stranger. Have dinner together. Talk and share. Listen, both at dinner and at times when you're children are off guard with their friends, such as when you're driving the car pool.
- Keep a family calendar and be sure everyone lists their activities. That's a great way to know where everyone is.
- Check up the old-fashioned way. Your daughter says she's sleeping over at a friend's, or going to a party at another friend's? Call the parents, offer to send a snack. Simple interactions with other people, both adults and teens, can prevent a lot of problems.