To snoop or not has always been a parenting question, but technology has raised the stakes. It gives us more to snoop with (GPS tracking devices on kids' phones, keystroke surveillance on their keyboards) and more to worry about (a diary entry with a lock and key couldn’t be shared round the world with the click of a mouse).
So, do you snoop on your children? Do they know about it?
A Harris poll released today says that many of us do. Of the teens surveyed, 43 percent said their parents "occasionally" check the messages on their smartphones, and a corresponding 43 percent of parents say the same thing... that they monitor phones with their kids' knowledge.
That last part is important, because an additional 35 percent of parents confess to scrolling through their child’s texts and emails WITHOUT telling their child, pushing the percentage of snoopy parents up to 57 percent.
There is the same gap when it comes to using phones to track a child’s whereabouts: 22 percent of parents say they use the devices as a GPS locator and their child is aware of that fact; an additional ten percent say they do this surreptitiously.
I admit I have been the secretly snoopy parent. My reasoning was that 1) I was paying for the device so I had a right to read what was on it, 2) nothing is really private in a digital world and 3) I only wanted to keep them safe. I didn’t do it often, perhaps once or twice per child, but I am here to say categorically that I was wrong.
Not that I shouldn't have read what my children were typing. I believe that every parent should scroll through once in a while. After all, what better rule for this wireless age than “Don’t put anything on a screen that you wouldn’t want your mother to read”? (Insert joke about "or the NSA" here...)
It’s the secrecy part that I regret. Because part of the lesson we want to teach is that anything you send can be read by anyone, and the best way to make that point is to make it clear that you are the first of those anyones.
The Harris survey found that a relatively low percentage of families do as I should have done -- they have a “contract” between parent and child (perhaps the best word on THAT subject is here) that includes such things as a parent's right to know a child’s passwords and to conduct random surveillance. Among those polled, just one-fourth (26 percent) of children under the age of 18 describe such a specific agreement, though the numbers seem to understandably vary by age. For instance, 65 percent of those polled who were between the ages of 8 and 12 say their parents regularly checked their phones. (Cue debate about whether this is too young to have a smartphone at all...)
Telling them you will be monitoring defines what could otherwise be messy territory. There are, after all, two reasons for checking up. The first is their safety, and the message that their messages are public. The second, though, is curiosity, and, looking back, I realize that reason was actually mine. Though I dressed it up and justified it as parental concern, I really simply wanted to know what my kids were thinking. My few furtive spying jags came at that shaky time as a parent, when my boys used to tell me everything but now gifted their thoughts to friends instead. Frankly, I missed them. The idea that the answers lay on a tiny screen was tempting.
But the danger of new tech is NOT that children can hide their thoughts from their parents once they hit puberty. They have always had that right; it is actually part of growing up. Warning them you will be looking means they will stop sharing with friends by phone and Internet, not that they will stop sharing with friends.
Which means the exception to the full disclosure rule is when you have reason to be worried about your child. And for that we must use the tool parents have relied on for centuries -- our gut. With eyes open we know when our kids are distraught, withdrawn, troubled. They leave us red flags in real life, and we are, it turns out, pretty good at spotting those. This same Harris poll found that parents have an excellent sense of what their children are doing with their phones. For instance, 46 percent of parents figure their child texts or messages during class, and a parallel 42 percent of kids admit to doing that. Sending and/or receiving “suggestive texts”? Eighteen percent of parents say their 13-18 year old children do that, while 19 percent of those children confirm that. Checking the phone while crossing the street? Twenty percent of parents compared with 19 percent of 8- to 17-year-olds.
We can read our kids. So we don’t need to sneak around and read their phones.