Should parents spy on their digital kids? This question comes up a lot at our parent workshops, and the answer is simple.
In a perfect world, kids would come fully-equipped with the cognitive capacities to make wise decisions online, starting from the moment they first press a sticky finger to the screen of a smartphone or tablet. Or, perhaps even better, kids (and Anthony Weiner) would be banned from using digital devices until their frontal lobe, that part of the brain responsible for good judgment, is fully developed. But since experts say this can take up until age 25, I suppose that's being unrealistic.
So it's not a perfect world.
The fact of matter is kids are going online at younger and younger ages and parents are increasingly looking for help to monitor their actions. Many are turning to Internet filtering and/or monitoring software and apps. Designed to identify and block dangerous sites and track inappropriate or excessive Internet use, most Internet filtering or monitoring programs allow for customization, letting users restrict or block categories as they see fit. For example, parents can block their children's exposure to text, photos, and videos related to pornography, illegal drugs, racism and intolerance, gambling, tobacco, alcohol and more.
The use of web filtering and monitoring software poses many questions, both technically and ethically. According to an American Library Association publication, To Filter or Not: The Pros and Cons of Using Parental Control Software, choosing to install parental control software is a personal decision and should be used in conjunction with one-on-one parental supervision. Additionally,
It is critical to recognize that filtering software cannot guarantee that children or other family members will never see inappropriate material on the Internet. While blocking pornography and explicit adult sexual material, the software may also block access to useful information related to personal health issues and other topics. NO program is one hundred percent effective, and new sites are added to the Internet daily. Most of all, it is essential to realize that parental control software is not a substitute for active parent interaction with your children and supervision of their Internet use.
Personally, I'm torn on this subject because to me, filtering and/or monitoring seem like the easy way out. I would much prefer to see adults put time and resources into equipping kids with their own internal structures to make good decisions online. This is possible by making time to teach digital citizenship at school, in the home, and/or during after school programs. Given all the harm that can come to a young person online: cyber bullying, online predators, exposure to pornography, sexting and more -- it's crazy that this is not a national priority.
But since it is not, yet, I've come to inhabit a middle ground: the use of software and/or apps that can help a parent monitor their child when they first start using digital tools. Here are two good examples:
MessageSafe: One of the first things kids are itching to do when they go online is text. It's how they maintain their social connections and, given the choice, they'd do it 24/7. MessageSafe, an app that parents can download to their kids' phones, lets users send text messages to other MessageSafe users. Parents can have these messages archived and then go to the company's website to review them for content and to see who they're texting.
Kids Email: In addition to texting, most young children are often anxious to send email. Like MessageSafe, Kids Email let's kids send and receive email only to and from those people on their contact list. At the same time a copy of these emails can go to the parent so they can review their young child's first correspondences. "The use of technology in today's society is key to a child's development" says Kids Email's Brittany Oler, "So we believe that you should allow your child to use technology, but in a safe environment."
These two tools remind me of a "Learner's Permit" that requires every young person who wants to get a Driver's License to drive in the company of an adult while they are learning the rules of the road. Shouldn't it be the same online? Because let's face it, the Internet can be a scary place if you don't know how to navigate it properly. So maybe driving slowly and cautiously, under a watchful eye, is the way to go. At least until parents can get up to speed.