Is it ever a good idea to snoop on your children?
It is a scary time to be the parent of teenager. You don’t just have to cope with the ready availability of drinks and drugs, though that is hard enough. With the virtual mainstreaming of porn (available to anyone at the click of a mouse) sex is also a danger zone. Sexting, or sending sexually explicit pictures via phone texts, is rampant among the teenage population. Peer pressure forces kids to become sexual players long before they are ready for sex at an emotional level. Sexual predators lurk in chat rooms and social media sites to prey on the young and the vulnerable. And the real world is scarcely safer, with reports of rapes and molestations coming in every day.
Combine this with the natural inclination of all kids to turn into monosyllabic creatures of mystery as soon as they hit puberty and you have a huge problem. Just when your children seem to be most vulnerable, their world is closed to you. And the only way to get even a glimpse is (not to put too fine a point on it) by snooping.
The good news is that spying on your kids has never been easier. You can use the GPS on their mobiles to track their whereabouts throughout the day. There are apps that will allow you to monitor their on-line activity – which sites they visited, what software they downloaded, etc – without their being any the wiser. And you can lurk in the corners to check out what they are posting on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (or get someone else to do the lurking for you).
But just because something is easy, should you do it? And what will you do with the information you glean? There is no way you can use it without admitting that you have been spying. And once you admit that, what will be the repercussions on your relationship with your kids? Will they ever forgive you for invading their privacy? Will they ever trust you again, given that trust goes both ways? What if they rebel against this helicopter parenting and become even more secretive than before? Given their competitive advantage in matters of technology, this is one battle you may never win.
Yet, there is no denying that our children are vulnerable on the Net. Cyber-bullying is rampant, and is sometimes so ferocious that it leads kids to kill themselves. Girls as young as 13 are pressured into sending ‘sexy’ pictures of themselves to their boyfriends; who then circulate them among their friends when the ‘relationship’ ends. And you only have to read reports about the Steubenville rape to see how Instagram, Twitter and other social networks are used to humiliate and shame.
So, when it comes right down to it, would you spy on your teenager? And does it ever turn out well?
Well, the jury is out on that one. I know parents who predicate their relationship with their teenage kids on trust and allow them their space. They respect the boundaries their kids put up and their children respond by being open and sharing their lives with them. But this hands-off attitude doesn’t work for everyone – and may even be downright dangerous for some.
On the other extreme, there are parents who believe that knowledge is power and maintain a constant surveillance on their kids. And while their kids may stay safe as a consequence, their relationship with their children does not exactly flourish. The kids resent the constant interference; and the implication that they are not to be trusted.
So what is a parent to do? It’s a tough one. You can’t really abdicate all responsibility for keeping your kids safe on the grounds that they are entitled to their privacy. On the other hand, you don’t want to be so intrusive that they shut themselves off from you forever. It is a fine line that separates caring from smothering; and parents will find themselves on the wrong side of it one time or another.
But the perils of prying work both ways. In one of my favourite episodes of Modern Family, Claire Dunphy joins Facebook and badgers her two teenage daughters into accepting her friend request in the hope of keeping tabs on their lives. But the tables are turned when an embarrassing photo of Claire – in her wild college days – is posted on Facebook by one of her old friends. It is Claire who is left red-faced as she tries (and fails) to delete the image.
There is a lesson for us all there. Just as there is some stuff you don’t want your kids to know about you, there is some stuff that your kids don’t want to share with you. It’s all a part of growing up, becoming their own person, inhabiting their own world. And whether it is real life or the virtual world, you have to learn to let go.
That said, I have to admit that spying by parents can teach kids a valuable lesson: that nothing you post on the Internet, no matter how well you monitor your privacy settings, is ever private. Each photo, Facebook post or tweet will live on forever in the ether. The only way to keep things really private is to keep them off the Net. But to delight of spying parents everywhere, that’s one thing Generation Next seems incapable of doing.