Tracking your kids online: An invasion of privacy or a necessity?

August 24, 2015

Terrifying stories of children being targeted online can drive parents to extreme measures.

Tracking a child’s every online and offline move has become the norm in many circles. But what are the pros and cons? What factors should parents consider before choosing this somewhat extreme route?

Pop culture

The subject has become so ubiquitous it’s even finding its way into popular culture. Last year’s Men, Women and Children movie explored online addiction. A mother in the movie, played by Jennifer Garner, constantly checks her daughter’s phone and computer use. She says to her protesting child, “Honey, you know I just do this to keep you safe. Okay, let me see your phone.” Variety describes the movie as showing how our attachment to the online world is destroying relationships and “turning us into a race of fame-obsessed, porn-addicted e-zombies”.

The argument for

Parents argue they are concerned about their children’s safety, worried about the media they are exposed to as well as the people they might be chatting to. A recent argument in favour of routinely checking up on children’s online activities came after it emerged a 15-year-old Cape Town girl was allegedly recruited by Islamic State (IS) and stopped from boarding a flight at Cape Town International Airport. State Security Minister David Mahlobo went as far as to warn parents they should be monitoring their children’s social media. “When these guys are trying to recruit they are very indiscriminate. They look at people’s views on websites. They look at their views on religion. The world of technology has a big role to play. We give our children all these gadgets. We just have to be vigilant. Parents must be more watchful,” Mahlobo told the media.

In addition, a US court ruled parents could be legally obligated to check up on their children’s online activities. The Court of Appeals of Georgia ruled on a case where a Grade 7 boy created a fake account for a female classmate. He wrote posts which made it appear she was gay, racist and mentally ill. He then sent friends requests to classmates, friends and teachers. The boy was disciplined at school but refused to take the page down for almost a year. Eventually, the girl’s parents sued his parents, claiming they had been negligent in not policing their son’s social media accounts.

“Given that the false and offensive statements remained on display, and continued to reach readers, for an additional eleven months, we conclude that a jury could find that the (parents’) negligence proximately caused some part of the injury (the girl) sustained from (the boy’s) actions (and inactions),” ruled Judge John Ellington.

The South African Police Service recommends parents take an active role in their children’s online lives. “Every parent should be aware of some important Internet and social media safety tips that could protect their children from potential harm. The Internet can be a dangerous place and social media websites are no exception. There are several things you, as a parent, can do to make sure your children can participate safely,” says SAPS.

Some of the recommendations include:

  • Insist on knowing your child’s passwords.
  • Spend time with your child while they use the Internet.
  • Move their computers into the family room.
  • Talk to your children about the dangers they could face.
  • Use parental control tools.

The argument against

It has been argued that constant tracking, as well as being an invasion of your child’s privacy, can lead to an erosion of the relationship between parents and children. Barbara Greenberg, a family clinical psychologist and expert on teen behaviour, told USA TODAY: “It really gives the message, ‘I don’t trust you at all…’ It’s over-involvement.”

Michael Brody, from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, agreed parents should take a step back. “These smartphones do open the world to kids, and there’s good and there’s bad,” he said. “I understand that parents want to use (tracking services) to make things safer, but they may be defeating their purposes. The way you make your children safe is to make them able to take care of themselves by themselves.”

Writing in The Guardian, Rory Carroll says tracking of children indicates that “the line between responsible supervision and cloying surveillance can be blurry”. “What sort of childhood is it with every move tracked, scrutinised, logged, judged? Where you cannot wander, try something new, be spontaneous – be yourself – without issuing a beeping alert from wearable, connected technology? This is helicopter parenting at its most stultifying, a constant, hovering presence.”

Apps to help you track your kids

If you’ve decided to go ahead and track your child’s online activities already, there are a number of apps and websites which can help you. These include:

  • Norton Mobile Security – Its parental monitoring software is described as allowing “you to keep track of your children’s computer use, monitor which sites they visit and block inappropriate sites”. It also limits the amount of time spent online.
  • Life360 – An iPhone and Android app which allows you to see the location of your family members on a map. It can also be automated to alert family members when you’ve arrived at specific locations.
  • MamaBear – An app which allows you to see family members on a map and receive updates on your child’s social media accounts.
  • Family Safety – A programme that can be installed on your computer which monitors usage via safety settings.

When deciding how to proceed, it is important to keep your child’s age in mind. A teenager should be able to manage their own lives, within reason, and keep themselves out of harm’s way. In addition, there should be a line between spying on your child’s every move and ensuring they are safe. Perhaps the most important factor to keep in mind is the need for open conversations with children about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior – online and IRL (in real life).

*This article originally appeared on MWEB.

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