I recall a public service announcement a long time ago that came on just before the news. It said, “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” If this PSA were to come on today it might say: “Do you know who — and what — your child is texting?”
I remember when in 10th grade, I landed my own separate land line after meeting my parents’ GPA requirements. I finally didn’t have to wait for my mom to get off the phone to talk to my friends. Nevertheless, my mom would be no less than an earshot away from my conversations.
Today’s parents don’t stand a chance. Not only do they not know who their child is talking with, chances are they won’t even hear a conversation because most kids don’t even talk to each other — they text. And they are really really smart about it.
As a teacher and parent, I have heard all sorts of opinions about how to deal with kids and cellphone use — from the over-confident, to the calmly assured to the totally obtuse.
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THE NEW FRONTIER
With the advent of the new “wild west,” our kids are living a life that many of us could never imagine. “Not MY child!” we exclaim when asked about the possibility of virtual misuse or impropriety. While many kids as young as 7 get cellphones to assuage their parents’ fears of detachment, few parents grasp what these kids do with those phones. Even fewer worry about it, and fewer still do anything about it. Even smart kids can do some really stupid things. From the language they use, to bullying and uploads, I pose the question: Should parents monitor their kids cellphone activity? And if so, under what circumstances?
BASIC COMMUNICATION WORKS
Unless you see evidence of trouble, stick with routine communication to get the information. Basic parenting works.
▪ Drive the carpool. Kids tend to forget you’re there and they talk freely with their friends. Draft other parents and ask them to keep you informed.
▪ Stay general. “Are you getting bullied in the locker room?” feels intrusive. Ask instead, “Is anyone being teased after practice?”
▪ Respect your child’s secrets. Unless your child is into something dangerous or illegal, don’t involve others.
▪ Don’t be a fixer. Kids won’t open up if they think you’re judging them or always telling them what to do
TECHNOLOGY AND THE CELLPHONE
An abundance of technology has provided our children with unprecedented access to information.
John Quain of the Laptopmag.com asks in his article “Should You Spy on Your Child’s Cell Phone Use?” His answer is simply “privacy ends where safety begins.” Parents have good reason to be concerned — from how much time kids spend staring into screens, to the apps they’re using, to the sites they’re visiting and the information they’re sharing.
According to Pew Research, 80% of teenagers use cellphones; nearly half of those are smart phones. Another survey revealed that one in four kids say they’ve been cyberbullied. Various surveys estimate that anywhere from 10% to 40% of teens have sent or received sexually explicit text messages or photos.
How much privacy does your adolescent child need? Social worker John Lehman says in his article “Teens and Privacy: Should I Spy on My Child?” that there should be a direct link between the amount of responsibility and honesty that kids show and the amount of privacy they’re allowed to have.
Adolescents want to have a life of their own, and adolescence is really about the preparation for that. Part of that preparation includes forming boundaries — that is, where your child ends and you begin.
When a teen meets his responsibilities (comes home on curfew, is where he says he’ll be) and you have no reason to be suspicious about anything, experts say that you should allow them their space.
The reason you do not interfere with their privacy is because you have no reason not to trust them. When you explain it that way, they know they are being rewarded for their behavior.
According to Dr. Steve Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Mass General Hospital, spying on reasonably well-adjusted kids can undermine healthy development. He says that adolescents need to know you trust them to make good decisions. In fact your faith builds their confidence to take age-appropriate risks.
WHEN THE GAME CHANGES
The privacy game changes when you discover something incriminating or have a real concern about your child’s risky activities. Should parents pry into their child’s life?
I was raised on the premise that whoever pays the rent has a right to look anywhere in their house and that includes a cellphone or a computer. It is the right of every parent — especially because they have the ultimate responsibility to protect their kids from themselves, even if they don’t want that protection.
Once something triggers a red flag — if you think your teen might be using drugs, drinking or engaging in other risky behavior — you have an obligation and a responsibility to your child to look in their room, their backpack and into their phone. Knowledge is power. When you understand what’s going on, you see things more clearly.
LINES OF DEFENSE
Parents have defense levels when it comes to keeping their children safe in the virtual world. According to John Quain of Laptopmag.com, there are three main defenses in this battlefield.
▪ First line of defense: the phone itself. When you think about it, how many kids really need smartphones before high school? Safe phones allow calling and texting without Web browsing capabilities.
▪ Second line of defense: carrier programs. When parents feel it is necessary to control their child’s phone activity, most major phone carriers have special services and parent monitoring programs.
Parental control packages include location tracking — known as geotracking or geofencing — as well as text control and time limitations. You can locate and track your child’s phone, receive notifications when the child arrives at a specific location, and control lock features at a predetermined times.
Some phones have safety driving features, so when the phone detects it is traveling at more than 10 mph it locks down. Message alerts and incoming calls are sent directly to voicemail.
▪ Third line of defense: third-party software. Parents who have already run into problems with their children’s online behavior may want to take a more aggressive approach and monitor the content of their child’s online communications. This is fundamentally deceitful, so there should be sufficient grounds for implementing this tactic and a plan for its culmination.
If this becomes necessary, you can to purchase and install background monitoring software on the phone to allow the viewing of logs and more. Programs range from PhoneSheriff ($90), which will monitor messages and browsing and provide online reports for parents, to MobiStealth ($100), which can secretly record phone conversations and remotely turn on a phone’s microphone to eavesdrop on a child.
Amy Williams of Teenology says after you have made the decision to monitor your child’s activity, it is important to follow a few basic guidelines and steps:
▪ If appropriate, inform your child that you will be checking their phone activity.
▪ Install a monitoring app, that allows you to see messages, texts and Internet activity. Most programs run in the background and shouldn’t interfere with your child’s phone.
▪ Make a distinction between spying and monitoring. A teenager is probably going to pitch an epic fit when they find out their parents are checking their cellphone. Remind teens that nothing online is private and monitoring their activity openly is not spying.
▪ If appropriate, sit down with your child and look at the messages together. This is especially useful if your child is receiving threats or involved with cyberbullying.
The options for monitoring and parental control software are extensive, so how you go about your research and selection depends what concerns you want to address and what your budget allows.
For the top-rated monitoring programs of 2015 click here.
Dan Tynan offers a great perspective on parental vigilance and a comprehensive review of parental control programs in his Yahoo Tech article “Spying on Your Kids’ Phones, for Their Own Good.”
Regardless, using these tools — under the right circumstances — demonstrates to children that the parents care and want to help guide them through the rough terrain of the online world.
KIDS ARE TECH SAVVY
No solution is impervious to the efforts of a determined child. A technically adept teenager will find a way to defeat any monitoring software, no matter what the advertising claims. Geotracking can simply be avoided by turning the phone off.
An ABC News Good Morning America segment recently discussed children using “secret” mobile apps, which can be used by children to hide texts, images and videos from prying eyes. These apps can look like ordinary functions such as a calculator, but when users enter a password they have access to hidden files.
Adults can keep their children from using such apps by turning off their ability to install apps without parental approval.
IS ALL THIS NECESSARY?
Some parents feel that online threats are overstated and create an unnecessary atmosphere of hysteria that leads to spying and mistrust. Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry says that monitoring kids is telling them we don’t trust them.
Jen Nessel, communications coordinator for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, says that fear drives a lot of parenting decisions. She believes that kids need to be free to make their own mistakes and says that just because we can constantly monitor, doesn’t mean we should.
SPYING OR PARENTING?
Lehman says that a lot of the things we do to protect our children might be considered “spying” by them, but they are in fact measures we take to keep them safe from others, as well as from themselves. In fact where parents were concerned about spying on their kids, experts now say it’s no longer considered spying — it’s parenting in the 21st century.
And there is a lot less debate over this than ever before.
Parry Aftab, cyber-harrassment attorney and author of A Parent’s Guide to the Internet, says that keeping track of your kids online is being able to know where (virtually) they are and who their friends are. Online monitoring allows a parent to set rules and have important discussions about online safety. It’s not just violent crime and kidnapping that are worrisome. Sexting is a huge issue starting with children as young as 11, as is cyberbullying.
Children need to be reminded that no text or email is truly private. A personal message can be copied and sent to hundreds of other kids. After a breakup, an angry girlfriend or boyfriend may send compromising photos to the entire school.
When parents do decide to monitor, the monitored information must be viewed cautiously — more of a position of watchfulness than one of voyeurism and ambush. Since monitoring can be viewed as a betrayal of trust and ultimately impact existing lines of communication, parents need to be sure of their intentions before embarking on this track.
And what happens if the parent do find inappropriate behavior? How does the parent approach the issue without revealing that they’ve been monitoring? Simply said, as you gain access to this information, you need to pick your battles — and consult a professional.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.