Do you spy on your kids? If so, why? If not, why not? This is the question at hand today.
Every now and then at MakeUseOf, we’ve covered various articles about spying on your kids’ computer or Internet use. Some examples include my article about cellphone apps to monitor kids, the review of iSpy for monitoring activity on your family computer, Matt’s list of 4 tools for tracking activity on your home computer, and of course many reviews of parental control software.
With all of these, the big question is always whether or not it’s ethically or morally responsible to spy on your kids. When is there a good enough reason to do so? What’s a good excuse — their online safety? Their physical security and privacy? Or is it never okay to spy on your kids and invade their privacy?
These are the questions that we’re going to explore in this debate. Ryan Dube and Justin Dennis face off, with Justin taking the anti-spying stance, and Ryan taking the pro-spying stance. At the end of the debate, it’s up to you to vote on who you feel won the debate!
So let’s get started with Justin’s opening argument.
Justin: The Case Against Spying on Kids
Today, the technology exists for parents to spy on their kids in all sorts of ways, but that doesn’t mean that they should. I know it’s hard to believe, but children have some basic human rights as well, and I think that privacy should be one of them.
Now of course, you want to know if your child is getting into anything bad: talking with their friends about illegal drugs or drinking, planning to sneak out after curfew, talking to strangers on the Internet, etc. But the truth is, no matter how intently you watch their online activities, they will find ways around it. Unless you want to imprison your child in a room with absolutely no connection to the outside world, they’re going to communicate with other people without your knowledge.
Let’s say you find a way to track all the websites your children visit on the home WiFi, you track their text messages and phone calls, and you don’t let them have Facebook or any kind of instant messenger. Great. But what about when they’re at school? Or at a friend’s house? They can still do bad things and make plans to do bad things when you’re not around. They can use their friends’ phones or computers or public WiFi hotspots or proxies to get around your parental controls. You’ll never be able to fully control everything your child does.
In junior high and high school, I remember the Internet filters that the school used were seen as a joke. Everyone knew the websites and tactics for getting around them, and they still do. Censorship is never perfect, and where there are cracks in the system, people will exploit them.
You can argue that by spying on at least most of what your children are doing, you can have some sort of control or influence over them, but I have to say that the opposite is true. Children whose parents constantly stalk what they do, looking over their shoulder and reading every message and Google search, those children are the ones who want to rebel. They’ll grow sick of having no privacy and overprotective parents, and they’ll be much more likely to attempt bad things outside their parents’ watch.
Now of course, there’s no foolproof way to prevent your children from getting into trouble. In fact, it will probably happen no matter what you do. But respecting your children and giving them some degree of privacy will allow you to forge a much stronger relationship with them based on mutual trust, instead of them seeing you simply as an evil dictator who they must work to avoid.
Ryan: The Argument for Spying on Kids
Gone are the days when kids can walk free on the streets without fear of getting abducted. The communities where children are safe to roam is shrinking. As of 2010, according to the a National Survey of Children’s Health in the U.S., in 2010 a whopping 11.4% of parents sometimes felt like their kids weren’t safe in their own community. Nearly 3% feel like their kids are never safe.
Take it online, and the problems only get worse. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, 26% of online sex offenders make use of social networks to get information about where kids live or their whereabouts during the day. If that isn’t scary enough, consider the fact that according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 7 kids receive some kind of sexual solicitation online at some point, and over half of those solicited are asked to send a picture of themselves.
These statistics prove there’s a very real danger to anyone under the age of 17 on the Internet. It would be completely irresponsible of any parent to not take an active role in monitoring a child’s use of the Internet, and making sure that the activity taking place doesn’t leave a door open for Internet predators to take advantage of a child’s naivety.
In 2012, I interviewed Russ Brown, the supervisor of the FBI Cyber Crimes Division in Boston. Russ advised that in recent years the FBI has seen an increase in what they call “sextortion” cases. That is, the child is convinced to send progressively more explicit photos of themselves, “extorted” by the fact that the perpetrator threatens to send the previous explicit photo to friends and family if they don’t send over more photos that are even more explicit.
The children that get into these situations are not stupid or immature, nor do they lack the understanding that there is a very real danger online that needs to be avoided. What children lack is the years of experience that adults have in dealing with people who may not be completely honest.
This isn’t a situation or a personality that many children are accustomed to, and the idea that someone who appears to be so kind online could actually be a terrible criminal is unfathomable by the teenage mind. It isn’t until the crime has been committed and it’s too late, that the child may understand the reality of the situation.
This is why it’s up to the responsible parent to install strong and effective filters and surveillance software, in order to track what sorts of IM software the children are using, who they are talking to, what social networks they use and who they are communicating with through those networks as well. The idea isn’t to spy or intrude into the private lives of the child — it’s to monitor for the tell-tale signs and red-flags that only adults with years of hard-earned life experience will recognize. To do anything less would be irresponsible, and even dangerous.
In the FBI interview in 2012, Russ said it best when he explained:
“So, is it a child or is it an equal adult with the same developed emotional capabilities as an adult? If you’re empowering your child at the age of twelve to be on an equal level as you are, then you aren’t really a parent anymore. Technically, they aren’t really mature enough to handle that stuff.”
The truth is, in a world where the Internet is as dangerous as it is today, a child shouldn’t have to handle that stuff. By appropriately monitoring and blocking things that could pose a threat, you can ensure that your child never has to do so, before they are old enough and emotionally prepared enough to handle the darker things that life can throw at them. But by then, they will have the tools necessary to recognize the threat, and to say no.
Actually, the days when children could walk the streets safe are right now. According to a 2009 Salon article titled Stop Worrying About Your Kids, Crime has been dropping across the board for the last 40 years, and children are just as safe now, if not safer, than they were in the 70s.
However, I will agree that online predators are still a real threat. The best way to deal with this problem, though, isn’t to block your children’s access to social networks or instant messengers or spy on them. The best way to protect your children is to talk to them and warn them about the dangers of people who aren’t who they say they are online. Your children are smarter than you give them credit for, and educating them rather than spying on them shows that you respect and trust them.
Installing “strong and effective filters and surveillance software” can only go so far. Let’s ignore the fact that most parents today probably don’t know the first thing about Internet filters or surveillance software and assume that all parents are certified tech professionals. Even then, you can’t monitor everything your child does.
Teenagers can (and will) buy cheap phones, tablets, or laptops without their parents’ knowledge, and free public WiFi is then widely available. Younger children will use the computers or phones of their friends, or they will get around their parents’ Internet filters or the weaker filters at their school.
And then, because they are already defying their parents, they will not tell their parents about any of it. If your children have to sneak behind your back to do something, you won’t hear of any of it until it’s too late.
Instead of instating harsh rules and regulations that you (falsely) believe can’t be broken or circumvented, try building a genuine relationship with your children; educate them about the dangers that lurk online and make them feel comfortable talking to you about it.
A relationship of mutual trust between you and your child is the only real thing that you can do to protect them online.
Justin’s stance has two flaws in it. The first is the assumption that talking with kids about the potential dangers online is enough to ensure young children make the right choices when talking with strangers online. The second is the assumption that every kid out there is irresponsible and looking for new ways to circumvent Internet filters and visit sites that are inappropriate for kids under a certain age.
The reality is that Internet filter software and parental control software is made these days so that parents don’t have to be computer experts to use them. Secondly, and more importantly, those filters can be customized to be very lenient, even in many cases allowing all traffic through, but flagging parents when certain activity takes place, like inappropriate words during IM chats, new and unknown incoming email addresses, or IM contact activity.
Surveillance and filtering doesn’t have to be intrusive, it does need to be in place to ensure parents have their eyes open — and are not turning a blind eye — to what their children are doing on the Internet.
There is no argument here that talking with your child about the dangers that are present on the Internet — dangers that have most certainly grown since the growth of social networks and online gaming — is the single most important thing a parent can do with their child. However, just flipping the switch and opening the floodgates without appropriately monitoring who is communicating with your children is irresponsible as a parent.
So what’s your take? Is talking with your child enough? Is monitoring necessary? Share your thoughts and cast your vote as to who you felt made the best argument and won this particular debate.
Image Credits: Boy in bedroom using laptop Via Shutterstock, Girls on Smartphones via Shutterstock, Students using lab via Shutterstock, Neftali / Shutterstock.com, Online Security via Shutterstock, Young People With Tablets via Shutterstock, Talking to Father via Shutterstock, Security Internet via Shutterstock