Saturday, March 10, 2012

How to Spy on Your Child Online (Part 1)

Why you should monitor kids' computer and cell phone use, and when you shouldn't

It's a given that we generally know where our kids are each day, whom they're with, and what they're doing. But in the digital world, where even our youngest children are spending a growing amount of time, we're often reduced to the role of spectator, and many of us are reeling from a case of digital whiplash. Our kids, even little ones, may very well understand today's technology better than we do.

Kids today have only known a world that's cyber-filled, and technology is woven through every aspect of their lives. It informs their friendships, their education, even their understanding of the world. Meanwhile, we're scrambling to figure out which rules to set and how to enforce them.
The trouble is, this particular subject isn't covered in the parental playbook; that chapter hasn't been written yet, and society hasn't had time to form standards. We have a drinking age and a driving age, but there's no solid conventional wisdom about at what age kids can safely go online solo or text a friend on their cell phone -- or about what our role as parents should be in keeping tabs on our tykes.


Digital life starts early, in toddlerhood, and accelerates at the speed of light. Kids who chat on Disney's popular have avatars before they have permanent teeth. A love of Leapster morphs into a passion for Nintendo DS and web-enabled Wii. Kids giggle over goofy YouTube videos and stumble across a treasure trove of knowledge -- and everything else imaginable -- on the Internet. Our moms used to overhear our phone conversations with our friends; for our kids, so much communicating goes on silently, via e-mails and IMs and texts, out of our range.

We worry, of course, that creepy adults posing as children will target our kids, and that our kids will inadvertently give out personal info and put themselves at risk. But there are other concerns as well. There's a new level of communication between kids: They may say things to or about each other online that they'd never say in person. Which can lead, of course, to toxic gossip, cyberbullying, and damaged reputations. Also, children may think that the words and images posted online are fleeting, but they can be saved and forwarded and seen by practically anyone, and can linger for years. Words typed in a text message that seem innocuous and impermanent can actually be life-changing. In 2007, for example, a boy in Portage, IN, was arrested for sending angry text messages to his ex-girlfriend, threatening her and another friend. Had these words been said face-to-face, they might have been dismissed. But as digital messages, they set off major alarm bells and the police got involved. The boy wasn't convicted, but the charges will stay on his record until he's 18.

With the digital portion of our kids' social lives happening outside our view, we need to ask blunt questions and keep a close eye on what they're doing. This is where it gets awkward. Many parents become queasy at the idea of digitally "spying" on their kids.

Is it really okay to closely monitor their digital behavior? It depends on how far you go.


"The difference between responsible monitoring and spying is the 'Gotcha' factor," says Nurit Sheinberg, Ed.D., director of research and evaluation at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL. If your kids don't know you'll be monitoring their use and you find something and go "Gotcha!" they'll be shocked and probably resentful, and may start hiding things from you. So once you decide how much and what kind of monitoring you'll do, let them in on it.

Your honesty has its perks: If they know you're watching, their self-monitoring instinct will likely kick in. (Of course, kids are masters at finding ways around parental control -- more on that later.) One of the best things you can do: Put the computer in a central location. There's no better way to keep an eye on things than to be able to wander by and casually say, "Hey, what website is that?"

Yes, you want to trust your kids. But they're kids -- relying on their word may not be enough to keep them safe.

So ask questions: Who are they communicating with? Which websites did they visit today? Try to keep your conversations positive -- or at least neutral! If your only message is "You're on the computer too much" or "Don't look at that website," it becomes a point of tension, and kids won't come to you when they see things online that upset or confuse them.

Then do regular checks to be sure you get the whole truth: Learn to use your browser's history function (keep reading for help) to see which sites have been visited recently and what's been downloaded. If you want more detailed information, try monitoring software (see below).

All-Seeing Software

Typical monitoring software falls into two categories:

1. Blocking software lets parents create a list of approved websites and block all others. Attempts to visit unapproved sites are recorded, and some programs will message you if that happens. You can also restrict when and for how long the computer can be used. Stephen Haag, Ph.D., a professor in residence of information technology and electronic commerce at the University of Denver, says Net Nanny (about $40) is a good place to start for parents of young kids.

2. Recording software records all data that's sent, received, down -- loaded, and viewed. Also takes periodic snapshots of the screen. Don't have time to view all that data? You can flag keywords (like profanity or sex-related words) and get alerts if they're used. Haag says eBlaster (about $100) is a popular choice. The most advanced programs, such as WebWatcher about $100), offer both blocking and recording, and let you watch your kid's computer activity in real time from a remote computer.


Next article: How to built in protection

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