The case for spying on your kids


October 5, 2011

Spying is generally considered a bad thing.

Sure, its cloak-and-dagger world of clandestine ops has a certain sex appeal, and it provides great fodder for novels and box-office blockbusters. But get caught spying on a foreign country and you face disavowal from your home nation and possible death at the hands of an enemy state.

Get caught spying on your kid and that’s when the consequences get really serious.

That’s the pitch behind Safetyweb.com, a new subscription service that, according to a news release, is “a new way for parents to monitor their children’s online activity without spying!” For $10 a month, the site will flag parents for everything from too much texting during school hours to offensive language on a Facebook page.

I’m not exactly sure how being notified of your child’s every online activity isn’t spying, but the real question for me is: Why is spying on your kids a bad thing?

I can almost hear the collective gasp from a generation of parents for whom social life begins and ends at the Germantown Soccerplex; parents who rebelled against their parents’ strictures and who want nothing more than to be Little Johnny’s confidant and friend. “What about trust?” comes the collective cry.

In the words of onetime liberal Ronald Reagan: Trust but verify.

We know our parents did it, rifled the underwear drawer in search of a diary or a journal, looked under the mattress for a stash of cigarettes or worse.

In a world in which 6-year-olds can play online games with faceless strangers, 10-year-olds have cellphones and 13-year-olds (and younger) have Facebook profiles, I posit that spying has never been a more important arrow in a parent’s quiver.

As a matter of fairness, kids should know their parents are spying on them, just like the Soviets knew we were spying on them.

In our house, it’s as simple as pointing out who pays the bill for the cellphones and reminding them that I know how many texts are sent each month. There are no computers in bedrooms, and I’ve been known to wander into the basement man cave with an offer of soda and cookies to see what games are being played on the wide-screen TV.

Before you dismiss me as the worst parent ever given access to the pages of a major newspaper, Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute in the District agrees with me.

“The history button on a computer is a very important tool for parents,” Balkam said in a recent interview. Particularly for middle-school and older kids, a parent’s role is “more about monitoring than filtering.”

Balkam says “monitoring”; I say “spying.” It’s a semantic difference, not an actual one.

“Talking to kids about online safety isn’t like the birds and the bees conversation where you can say ‘Thank goodness we had that conversation’ and never revisit it,” he says.

Online safety conversations can start at an early age, when time limits can be set and sites blocked. What’s most important, Balkam says, is that everyone understands the family rules.

“If you are being pestered by your 10- or 11-year-old for a phone or your 12- or 13-year-old to have a laptop, then it’s a good time to also say, ‘Look, your having a private conversation with your friend on the playground is one thing. But you’re putting things out on the Internet is semi-public and, in some cases, very public, so I’m going to keep an eye on what you’re doing in public, just as I do when you’re in a restaurant.’ ”

He suggests going so far as to set up a contract (there’s a very good one at the Family Online Safety Institute’s Web site at www.fosi.org), so that kids and parents know what to expect. I particularly like Point 8 of the parent’s contract: “I will frequently check to see where my kids have visited on the Internet.”

All of which gets us back to Safetyweb.com and it’s spying, er, monitoring service.

Ken Chaplin, a senior vice president of Experian, which owns Safetyweb, says the service is intended to make it easier for parents to do the type of monitoring Balkan advocates. Because Safetyweb monitors only public activity by your child (Facebook, Skype or Pandora posts, for example, or number and timing of texts but not the content of those texts), the service is, in some ways, less covert than parental journal-reading.

“We encourage parents to let kids know” that they are using the service and to say to their kids, “as a parent, I’m trying to help you by making sure that naive curiosity doesn’t turn into something dangerous. . . . It’s not about catching kids doing something bad; it’s about protecting them from a bad world,” Chaplin says.

Whether you, as a parent, want to receive alerts every time your child posts certain words on Facebook or sends a text when he or she should be in math class, is an individual decision.

The tools you use in your parental espionage pursuits may have gotten more complex in the age of the Internet and social networking. But the fundamentals of the job remain unchanged.

“It’s a parent’s responsibility to monitor your kid’s behavior, online or off-line,” Balkam reminds us.

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