How to Spy on your Child Online

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Why one should monitor the cell phone and the computer use of kids, when one generally knows where the kids are every day, with whom they are, and what are they doing. Well, in digital world, even the youngest children these days are spending a lot of time and we are often reduced to role of mere spectators and majority of us are reeling from case of a digital whiplash. Even little kids these days might understand the technology of today much better than us.

Today’s kids have only known the world that is cyber filled. Every aspect of live today has technology woven through it.  Technology informs the friendships of our kids, their education and even their understanding of world. And here we are scrambling to figure out the rules to set and their enforcement.

A big problem is that this subject is not covered in parental playbook; the chapter has not yet been written, and the society has not made any standards yet. There is driving age and drinking age, but no conventional wisdom exists about the age kids should go online on their own or they should be allowed to text their friends on cell phone, or what role should we play as parents.

kids and internet

Brave new world

The digital life begins early in the toddlerhood and it accelerates at speed of light. The kids who use the popular Disney site have their avatars even before they have their permanent teeth. The Wii having the web browsing feature and Nintendo DS become the passions of our kids. They watch and enjoy the videos on YouTube and stumble upon the treasure trove of information and knowledge and everything imaginable — on the internet. In early days, moms used to overhear the phone conversations of kids; but now a so much of the communication goes on pretty silently, through IMs and emails and texts.

We worry for our kids, that some creepy adults might pose as children and target the kids and it the kids might just inadvertently give out the personal information, putting themselves at risk. There are many other concerns too. Kids are communicating with each other on a whole new level: They might say some things about or to each other on internet which they would never say to each other in person. And of course it can result in cyber bullying, toxic gossip as well as damaged reputations. The children may also think that images and words posted online are temporary, but they might be saved by someone and forwarded to anyone and can be seen by anyone. These images or words can practically linger online for many years. The words that are typed in text messages which seem impermanent and innocuous can be actually life changing. For example, in 2007 a boy was arrested in Portage, Indiana for sending some angry texts to his ex. He threatened his ex-girlfriend and another thread in those messages. Had he said those words on her face, it might not have been a big issue. But as they were digital messages, alarm bells started ringing and police got involved. Boy was not convicted, but charges are going to remain on his record until he is 18.

With digital part of the social lives of kids happening outside the view of parents, there is a need for us to ask blunt questions. The parents must keep close check on what their kids are doing. It becomes quite awkward at this part, as many parents get queasy at idea of spying on the kids digitally.

Is it okay to monitor the digital behavior of your kids closely? Well, it depends on how far one goes.

Trust, but verify

Nurit Sheinberg who is the director of evaluation and research at Mailman Segal Institute for the Early Childhood Studies at the Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida says that difference between spying and responsible monitoring is that ‘Gotcha factor’.  In case your kids do not know that you are monitoring them and you end up finding something after which you go all “Gotcha!” the kids will be shocked and they will probably be resentful. They may begin to hide things. On after deciding what kind and how much of monitoring you are going to do, let your kids know it.

Your honesty is advantageous: if your kids know that you are watching them, the self-monitoring instincts of your kids will kick in. (Not forgetting that the kids are really good at finding the ways around the parental control — we will shed more light on it latter.) A great thing which you should do is to put computer in some central location. There is no better way of keeping an eye on the things than just wandering around and saying “Hey, which website is it?”

Yes, you should trust the kids. But remember that they are kids. Simply relying on the words of your kids might not be good enough to ensure their safety.

So you should ask questions like: Which websites they visited today?  Who do they communicate with? Try keeping the conversations positive. If the only message you are giving is that “You are using the computer or tablet too much” or “Do not look at this website” there can be tension, and the kids will avoid coming to you in case they see stuff which upsets them or confuses them.

You should check regularly in order to make sure that you know whole truth: Use the history function of your browser to see the websites which were recently visited and to see the stuff that was downloaded. In case you want to have more detailed info, try the monitoring software.

All-Seeing Software

There are two categories of monitoring software:

  1. The blocking software: The parents can create list of the approved websites with the help of blocking software. All other websites can be blocked. If any attempt is made to visit the unapproved websites, they will be recorded, and you will be messaged by some program in case it happens. You will also be able to restrict when your kids can use computer and for how long.  According to Stephen Haag who is Ph.D. and is a professor at University of Denver, a great place to begin for the parents who have young kids, is Net Nanny.
  2. The recording Software: All data that is received, sent, downloaded and viewed is recorded by the recording software. Periodic snapshots of computer screen are also taken by this software. In case one does not have enough time to scroll through all data, one can simply flag keywords (such as sex-related or profanity words) and receive the alerts if they are used. According to Hagg eBlaster (costs about $100) is very popular choice. Most advanced software, like WebWatcher (costs about $100), offers blocking as well as recording, and it lets the parents watch the computer activity of their kids from some remote computer in real time.


Built in Protection:

Macs and PCs have the parental controls built in to the operating systems. Each of newest systems (Mac’s leopard and Windows vista) offers the parents a lot of control, says MR Ismael Matos from Geek Squad. In case you are thinking of upgrading the operating system, the switch may save you additional costs of the monitoring software.

In order to use the controls of your computer, the first thing you should do is to set up the individual user accounts for each kid. You can check the user guide of your computer to do so, if you don’t already know how to do it.

Mac Users: The next thing is to choose the system preferences on Apple menu and then click on Accounts. For the account of each child, click on the Parental Control. You will have list of the categories (Safari, Mail, etc.) which you can monitor or restrict.

According to Matos, in case you are running Leopard, the IM conversations can be recorded and designated that with whom your child is able to talk via iChat or e-mail. You will also be able to limit the screen time e.g. you can set computer to log the kids out automatically at 8 pm.

Windows Users: Parental controls can be accessed via Control Panel. You should look for the User Accounts and the Family Safety Controls. You will be provided with choices in Windows Vista about the web restrictions. You will also have option to receive reports on the child’s computer usage. You can block the objectionable programs and video games and designate certain times off-limits.

It doesn’t matter which system you are using, most of the browsers (Firefox, Safari, etc.) have automatic history log which shows the sites that were visited. In case you do not know how to check history, you can check the user manual. But remember that the kids may learn deleting history in order to cover the tracks, so you should ask them in case you find out that history of browser was cleared.

Require more help? Both Microsoft (Windows) and Apple (Macs) have the online tutorials as well as detailed information on the websites – simply Google the term “parental controls” along with “Microsoft” or “Apple” in order to find the parental controls. The users of Mac also have the facility to make appointment at nearby Apple Store. Or one can call at 800-Geek-Squad for consultation over phone or for scheduling a visit (it is pricey though – the price of home visits starts from $99).

We gradually give the kids more independence and freedom with most of the safety issues like riding bicycle, climbing tree, crossing street etc. But in digital world, there are different and new risks which come along with time. Your instinct may be backing off as the kids approach teen years, but that is exactly when you should get more involved. When your kids tell you the same tried out and true cry of “But all of my friends do it”, you should compare the notes with parents of other kids; you will most probably discover that most of them are as concerned as you are (plus, you will see which parents let the kids have and unrestricted access to the internet!).

Remember that the protection which you provide your kids won’t ever be complete as the whole world is present out there with all its ugliness and beauty. And some of the ugliness and beauty will surely come to your home via modem (regardless of what you do). Just do not give up. According to Cynthia Edwards, who are Ph.D. and professor of the psychology at the Meredith College in Raleigh, NC: the parents should start conversation fairly early and they should keep it going.

What should you allow and when should you allow?

Is your kid old enough to have cell phone? And how about your child’s own e-mail address? Stated below is how you should make these calls:

What your child wants: Gaming system
When they will start asking: Many kids are able to nimbly work controls of Nintendo DS by preschool. And they will probably like to have one.
What should you consider: You should vet the games carefully. Do not assume that the rating “E for everyone” means the game will be appropriate. You should put off the networked gaming until the child is fully aware of online safety. As it opens up the live communications with other online gamers. How much of playing video games is too much? You should see how the behavior of your child is affected, and then you can accordingly set the time limits.

What your child wants: cell phones
When they will start asking:
When your kid reaches fourth grade, they will probably be having some classmates having have cell phone.
What should you consider:
Is a cell phone a necessity of a 9 year old? Probably not. However once they are 12, text messages might be a big component of the social world of your child. In case you decide that it’s time, you should research the school policy about carrying cell phone on the school property. You should set some specific limits about when and how much can your child use the cell phone, and you should have clear plan in order to enforce it.

What your child wants: IM account/e-mail
When they will start asking:
When the kids reach third grade or so, they start clamoring for a private IM or email account.
What should you consider:
Kids can use the e-mail address shared by the family. When they are 11, 12 you should consider making a separate account for the kids and you should tell them that you will be scanning through their messages once in a while in order to ensure that they are using their account responsibly. Remind your kids that the IMs are not as fleeting as they think – they might be saved and then forwarded.

What your child wants: broad internet access
When they will start asking:
The kids who are in the upper grades require the internet access in order to do their homework projects. Eventually they will want unfettered access.
What should you consider:
In case your parental controls or software are blocking the useful educational websites, you should consider to loosen them. But you should regularly check the history of your computer to check where the kids’ surfing took them. Make sure to reinforce lessons about the online safety.

Cell Phone 101

So you have decided that it’s about time that you equip the child with cell phone. Following are some variables which you should consider:

The Parental Controls: A number of providers allow you to limit the phone numbers at which a phone is able to call or receive calls from, along with restricting text. There are some programs such as the Smart Limits by AT&T (costs $4.99/month), which restricts the web content along with limiting the amount which one can spend on the downloads – for instance the kids might rack up huge charges on the ringtones.

Photo/video: Most of the standard phones are able to take photos and videos as well and these phones can also show the ones sent by other people, this results in all sorts of risks: For example, someone might shoot photo of their friend undressing and then send it to everyone in the phonebook or they might post it online. Therefore, it is very important that you frankly talk with the child about the stuff not to shoot and not to send. You should also tell your child that you will be looking at the saved photos and saved videos regularly and only you are the one who can delete them.

Monitoring: In case you are not familiar with phone, you should ask salesperson to let you know how to see the recent texts and calls. One can clear these histories, so if required, you can simply cross reference with phone bill. Usually the bills itemize each text received and sent. You will not see body of text, but you will know when the text was sent and the number to which it was sent. In case you are concerned, there are external monitoring services like It gives the parents complete access to the messages and alerts them in case any messages come from the unapproved sources.