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To Monitor or Not to Monitor: Tracking Children’s Digital Lives

Somewhere Not Here Mitchell Joyce via Compfight

As uKnowKids, describes it, our parents had a built in way to monitor our communications. Before cell phones, there was a single house phone. When friends called, parents knew. If they were worried about what we were talking about on the phone, they could pick up another line in the house, cover the mouthpiece, and listen to our phone calls.

That’s not possible anymore, as an ever growing array of social media sites and phone apps give kids more options for communicating than parents could possibly monitor on their own. As a result, numerous services now offer the means to observe and control children’s digital lives. Parenting today requires us to choose whether and how we will keep tabs on our children using these software, apps, and other tools.

According to The New York Timesa Pew Study found that two-thirds of parents monitor their children’s digital footprints. For some, this is as simple as friending their children on Facebook or following them on Twitter. With the number of privacy options available on social networks like Facebook, parents will often still be unable to keep track of their children’s online activity without the use of specially developed software and apps. The days of simply blocking unsavory sites from a child’s computer have passed. Now there are apps that track a smartphone user’s movement, and others that forward sent text messages to  a parent’s phone.  It is not necessarily that parents don’t trust their children. Some simply wish to attain the same awareness of their children’s comings and goings that their own parents had. For other parents, protection is the goal of monitoring online activity. The shadow of cyberbullying looms over modern adolescence, and monitoring a child’s online communications can make it easier to detect the traces of  traumatic online harassment.

But how do parents integrate their observations into parenting? As one grandmother said to The New York Times, she uses technology to stay privy to plenty of information that she could never bring up to her granddaughter. Teenagers do not want to feel as though their parents don’t trust them, and nothing would give them that sense more than a reference to knowledge a parent had gained by reading their child’s text messages. In other words, though you might learn by reading your son’s text messages that a girl caused his sour mood, it would be better not to bring her up to him.

Today’s parents must decide whether it is enough to regularly discuss internet safety with their children, or whether a more active digital observation solution works best for their family. Not only that, but parents must include in this decision the complex ethics of surveillance and trust that digital monitoring solutions bring to the surface. To what extent should we discuss with our children the ways we track their online activity, and should they be involved in choosing how they will be monitored? Should we share the information we learn with them, or keep it to ourselves and use it to silently guide our parenting?

Those who do opt for  monitoring have many options. For younger children, consider “gated” social networks like Everloop, which offers games, chat, and messaging similar to Facebook, but with the benefit of safety features appropriate for those under 13. Parents of older children who wish to have a better understanding of what they do online can use tools like Trend Micro’s Online Guardian, which lets parents track internet activity and limit online time on multiple computers. As we don’t imagine many families will be returning to the use of a single house phone any time soon, such software might be the best bet for knowing where your children are going online and what they do when they’re there.