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Digital Citizens, Friday, December 5, 2014

To spy or not to spy, that is the question. If you have a child with an online presence—whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any number of up-and-coming social media sites like Yik Yak, Kik, or Snapchat—you’ve probably asked yourself this very thing.

As parents, caretakers, or even just responsible adults, you may consider—or already be—using one of the many apps or software programs available that allow parents to monitor smart phone use, including social media and other online activities.  While some of these apps are harmless enough—even “easily identifiable” by kids who have the software—others allow “parents to pry unannounced if they choose.”

So where is the line between supervising your children’s online behavior and invading their privacy?  It depends on who you ask.

Open Lines of Communication

According to the Cyber Safety Lady, the apps or programs that essentially allow parents to infiltrate their children’s online activities are only necessary “if you have a serious problem with your child, if you are unable to discipline them, or reason with them and they have become uncontrollable.”  Hopefully, that isn’t the case for most of us.

The most valuable tool at your disposal, according to her, is open, honest communication.  This should start as soon as your children show interest in the Internet—but it’s never too late to open the lines of communication. 

Making sure children understand the risks they face online, what to do when they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation, what information is appropriate to share, and how to protect their online identities—all of that will add up to responsible digital citizenship at an early age.

Most importantly, though, make sure your children know that if they are ever faced with a situation in which they don’t know what to do, they can come to you for help.   

Monitoring At Home

Supervising and monitoring children’s Internet use is an important part of raising the next generation of Digital Citizens.  As the Cyber Safety Lady says, “It takes a while for your children to trust that you know how to handle things, and they will make mistakes,” so don’t be afraid to monitor Internet use.

Ask questions when your kids (especially younger ones) are online at home—about what they’re doing, who they’re talking to, how they know them, and so on.  It may come across as nosy, but it will help you get an idea of how they’re spending their time online, and it will reinforce the open lines of communication that will hopefully prevent having to use spy apps or software.

Getting Involved

Internet safety and digital parent advocate Sue Scheff also has some words of wisdom when it comes to supervising a teen’s online activities—and it starts with getting involved.  Here are just a few of her tips:

  • Follow your children on social media, but don’t interact with them too much.  “A policy of radio silence is more likely to give you an accurate picture of what [your child] does and says online.”
  • Be honest about your intentions.  Let your teens know that you are making an effort to monitor their online activities out of concern for their safety. “An open, honest relationship can almost eliminate the need for extensive monitoring.”
  • Check your Web browser’s history.  It may seem obvious that a teen would clear the Web history after using the family computer, “but even the stealthiest teens can forget from time to time.”
  • Use parental controls.  Especially if your teen is using a shared computer, make sure that you have parental controls set to “filter the majority of the objectionable content that comes up in a general search engine.”

Should adults monitor their children’s online activities? Yes, for the same reason that you would monitor their offline activities—because the world is complicated and they are still learning how to keep themselves safe.  The question of how adults should monitor their children’s online activities is a more complex one—and one that is increasingly getting asked by digital safety advocates and parents alike.  As with most issues we face online, however, honest and open communication is key.

Read more about this issue in a recent article from the New York Post.

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