Mobiles and minors: To spy, or not to spy?

As a parent, should you spy on your child's Internet and mobile device use?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

As a parent, you are meant to protect and raise your children safely, and help them turn out well as adults. Once, this meant making sure your child knew not to talk to strangers in the street, but amidst the explosion in Internet use and mobile devices, the parameters have changed.

If your child has a tablet or phone, and you don't know what they get up to online -- whether they are on social media, or what they are searching for via Google -- this becomes a source of worry for a parent. As a result, some parents decide to monitor such activities. 

Trying to maintain a balance between trust, privacy and monitoring is the difficult part. The debate on how to do so rages on, as I and my colleague Jason Perlow recently discussed.

See also: ZDNet Great Debate: Should parents spy on their kids?

I don't think privacy is a fundamental right for a single member of the human race. Instead, we attribute ourselves with the idea, but change the restrictions based on the context -- for example, we may not expect to hold the same rate of privacy with our partner than with our local council, or our children in comparison to the tax man. 

Physical, emotional and data-driven privacy also changes the game of what "privacy" actually means. In this day and age, we often give away our data without realizing it (how many of us simply scroll through Terms of Service and click "I accept?" and then get angry when a more radical change, or sponsored advertising on Google, makes us realize our data has been collected?).

We only have the level of privacy we grant ourselves, and the level our government permits us. Surveillance is part-and -parcel of modern life in the West, and it is the constant battle between privacy advocates & groups, the introduction of legislation in the name of protection and technological advances which continually changes the goalposts. 

As a result, I don't believe that privacy -- whether for adults or children -- is a fundamental right. However, in a social and family-based context, the idea of privacy and respecting personal boundaries generates trust and a level of security -- which is necessary for a cohesive family unit to survive. Spying on children is unlikely to generate a healthy relationship, and while I accept a certain level of monitoring is necessary to keep your children safe and make sure they are not behaving inappropriately, whole-scale spying is not the right way to go.

See also: Monitoring our children's smartphones is a necessary evil

There is only so far you can go to keep children safe, whether in the physical world or online. Whether you start allowing your children to use the phone or quell panic as they ride their bike in the park alone for the first time, eventually you have to let go -- once you deem them responsible and mature enough to think more for themselves.

There is a fine line between giving children too much freedom and how much to relax things as they grow up, but eventually, it is likely they will want a phone or tablet (especially if you're a parent who lets a small child play with apps to entertain themselves.) When this time comes, it is up to the parent to decide on limits -- but there is no reason why you cannot afford them a level of privacy which is suitable.

As an emerging teen, I was allowed a lock on my door on the proviso i didn't lock it at night, in case there was a fire. I was allowed to go out on my own, as long as I had a phone card on me for emergency use. I would allow my child a phone, as long as they respected limits put in place -- and they also understood if it was misused, it would be taken away. 

We often accept levels of surveillance as adults, and come to expect it in the workplace, where we are representing something other than ourselves. Children, however, are often less tolerant. You could argue that as it is generally the parent who pays the bill and children are -- by definition -- not adults, it is acceptable to rifle through their activity. Perhaps it is -- but is this the right way to go if you want your child to understand the limits, and feel comfortable enough to come to you if they need help? 

Depending on age and maturity, kids will still make mistakes -- but it is the most serious ones that parents dread. We can expect rules to be followed, but understanding of consequences may be dulled due to age. Now, this in itself can give reason for parents to spy, but again, it's better to do things in balance. There is a difference between occasionally checking what a 12 year-old is up to when they use your phone and looking at a 16 year-old's Facebook messages. While one is likely to receive an 'oh, ok" response, the other is more likely to result in an explosive rage. 

There has to be reason for checking up on a minor's behavior, rather than doing it just because you can as a parent. Minors are family members, not employees. In the same way you wouldn't expect your teen to rifle through your bank statements, they don't expect you to rifle through their underwear drawer, diary, or online accounts. If there is a report of behavior justifying it, why not try and talk to a child before raising the game to the level of spying, implying you wouldn't trust what they have to say anyway?

If parents decide to give their child gadgets which may pose a risk, they should also make sure their son or daughter understands these risks -- and are old enough to recognize them. To a growing teen, a parent rifling through emails and social media messages -- even when these messages often include childish conversations and squabbles, of no interest to adults -- can be devastating. 

At a time where parents already have to cope with hormone-filled rages and rebellion, outright spying is likely to place additional strains on a relationship. Instead, sitting down with a teen and explaining the risks of behaviour including cyberbullying and "sexting" might be more effective.

Every minor is different, and responds to parents in different ways. Every parent deals with the same conundrum -- protect their child or let them make their own mistakes? Unless their behaviour gives you reason to believe a relationship or communication is dangerous, you often simply have to be there to pick up the pieces. But minors have to trust you, and your judgement, enough to make them want to come to you if they are in trouble, and extreme surveillance is likely to stop this from happening.  

Rather than possessing account passwords, if your teen wants a Facebook account, why not insist you are added as a friend instead? If your minor wants a smartphone, fine, but there are limits set on phone call times -- or the removal of such devices at dinner? If a minor considers a gadget a privilege rather than right, perhaps they are less likely to abuse it.

In a recent study conducted by Harris Interactive, both parents and children were asked whether parents should spy on their child's mobile devices and Internet use. The survey found that many families have established a common ground -- among smartphone users aged 8 - 18, 43 percent said their parents occasionally check their smartphone. However, only 26 percent of youths said they had a code of conduct to follow in order to keep their devices -- which I believe should rise if parents are going to maintain control and establish correct boundaries.

In the end, both parties need to have a good understanding of the benefits and risks of mobile devices and Internet use. As a former teacher, I'd say that classes in digital citizenship would be the right step forward, to let minors know the impact cyberbullying, social media accounts and digital footprints can have in future lives. 

I don't presume to know more than a parent who will understand their child far better than someone looking in. However, it isn't simply the parent's responsibility to look after our children -- it is also the collective role of society, teachers and organizations.

The thing is, that from very young ages to teens, I've found that offering a bit of trust pays dividends. As an ex-teacher, i'll give you several examples. I found that if I trusted students to use their smartphones and occasional tablet in class for the work set -- and refused to look over their shoulder every five minutes -- the work was done. This was a pattern that proved true no matter if it was a class in a basement schoolroom in Vienna or a private school in Rome. If i let students listen to their iPods while working on projects, productivity went up -- and they had no trouble summoning me when they needed help. 

In the same way as a parent, I prefered to know what devices were being used and when, rather than finding smartphones used under the desk without my knowledge. 

The only thing required to establish the boundaries when it came down to device use was laying down the rules first, and swiftly confiscating a mobile phone or two should they be broken. 

I'm not saying this technique would work perfectly for every classroom or home environment, but I do firmly believe that respect and discipline flows both ways. If you treat children as individuals who can make their own choices rather than a guilty party until proven innocent -- and discipline yourself not to give in to checking up on their every action -- you teach children to take responsibility for their own behaviour and let them know you're there if they make a mistake. 

There is no all-around solution currently on the market to make safe, restricted monitoring easy for parents and children to navigate. There are a number of solutions that can be customised, sure, but for the average parent who doesn't have a deep knowledge of software, there's nothing really available.

The use of mobile devices by minors has created a steep learning curve for parents, children and businesses alike -- and we all need to start catching up at the home, in school, and in the products we offer. In the meantime, we are left to navigate these waters as best we can -- while keeping children safe. 

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