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I Don’t Feel Good About Spying on My Kid’s Phone — But I’m Doing It Anyway

child's phone
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Hands up if you have ever looked at your child’s phone, without their permission or knowledge.

Yep — I have, too.

According to my son’s head teacher, this is exactly what you should be doing. That’s right — spying on your kids.

At a school meeting I attended last week, parents were actively encouraged to look at their children’s phones on a regular basis to monitor their apps, chats, texts, and social media updates.

My son is 11 and has only recently started high school (we start earlier in the U.K.) — which meant, finally, buying him a phone. We reluctantly agreed the time was right, mainly because we wanted him to have it during his walks to and from school. But letting him have a phone has opened up a whole new world of issues and worries about what he sees online.

I immediately asked a mom of older boys who had been through this: What do I do? The rules are simple, she said:

1. No phones in the bedroom.
2. Go phone-free from 7 PM — leaving them downstairs charging.
3. Demand to know the password and check the phone regularly.

Memories of my own mom reading my diary when I was 12 still haunt me, so I was slightly dubious as to whether or not I should be spying on my kid. I was surprised to hear the school advocating for such an action, thinking to myself, “Won’t this erode trust and just enrage our pre-teens?”

What standards are we setting if we are going behind our children’s backs and reading all their private messages and emails?

The school told me that we should be transparent about the fact we are checking up on our kids, so they are aware that anything they are saying online is something their parents will be able to see. It made me think: Will kids simply curb their opinions and language, knowing Mom will be snooping? Or simply find a sneaky way to show their true colors on a platform parents may not find?

A quick scan of the Internet reveals there are many different types of apps that parents can choose from, should they want some help “snooping.” Some apps filter content, others monitor it (even deleted texts and emails), whilst the most hardcore ones send notifications if your child tries to access a blocked site and let you access the phone remotely.

I may be able to convince my 11-year-old to let me check his phone every day — but what happens when he is 15? 16? Will he still be cool with it?
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Is this perhaps going too far?

If you consider that research conducted by Google found that in Australia 50 percent of kids between the ages of two and 12 now have their own phone or tablet, maybe the need to be vigilant is more prevalent than ever. Meanwhile in the U.S., a recent survey by the nonprofit group Common Sense discovered children spend an average of 48 minutes a day on devices, up from 5 minutes in 2011 and 15 minutes in 2013. The survey of 1,454 U.S. parents, repeated for the third time in six years, shows how much phones and tablets are part of our parental landscape — as 42% of young children in the U.S. have their own tablets and 98% live in homes with at least one mobile device.

Access to the web opens up a whole world of danger, but is it ever OK to use that as leverage to snoop on your child’s phone? There is such a grey area between protecting your child online and invading their privacy — especially as they become older. I may be able to convince my 11-year-old to let me check his phone every day — but what happens when he is 15? 16? Will he still be cool with it?

A quick glance at this police website in the U.K. reveals simple advice on how to keep your child safe: Talk to them. Know what is happening in their life. Help your child to understand that people can lie online and pretend to be someone they are not. Funny enough, all the suggestions my son’s school made are supported by the police, too. The Internet is not a private place. Everything you do on it leaves a footprint – forever.

Here is what I am hoping: that by the time my son gets to 16, he will respect himself enough and be educated enough to be aware of how to conduct himself online. That we will have as close of a relationship as we do now and he will feel he can discuss anything with me and trust me to give him good advice.

Until then, I’m continuing my spy work.

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