by William S. Pollack

The Parent Trap: Using Technology to Snoop on Your Kids

May 15, 20016 mins
Consumer Electronics

Rick’s mother was shocked to discover that the electronic “footprints” on her family’s Internet browser revealed numerous pornographic websites, which, she recalls, “turned my stomach when I tracked them down.” Just the other day her usually reasonable and mild-mannered 14-year-old son had been apprehended by the police while attempting to sneak into an X-rated movie. Now this! In her own home and right on the computer she had thought was so important for his schoolwork. What in the world should she do? She considered buying some technology that screens and controls computer use, but wondered how far she should go in limiting or intruding into her son’s cyberexperience.

Fortunately?and unfortunately?IT provides a new and ever-growing panoply of sophisticated software “solutions” to such problems. They range from simply “spying” on the cookies that have been sent back from the websites your target has visited to built-in technologies that limit browsing capacity, and on to more complex technology like the Spector system, which automatically and surreptitiously makes time-sensitive samples of website activity for review at a later date.

I say fortunately when referring to such technologies because some of them will eventually provide opportunities for increased personal safety and a heightened sense of freedom. Yet I also say unfortunately because these “genies,” released from the bottles of IT creativity, can and have been used as spying devices within families. As a headline in The Wall Street Journal put it, “It’s Not Big Brother Invading Kids’

Privacy, It’s Mom and Dad.”

“Well, what’s a parent to do?” some might object. “We live in a world where kids can do terrible things with technology, from pornography to pipe bombs. Isn’t it our job to protect them?”

The answer to the question “Should parents maintain a responsible and involved role in their kids’ lives?” is, indeed, a definite yes. My own research with boys who get in trouble or become depressed and suicidal corroborates the fact that parental involvement is essential for creating a generation of healthy children and teens. In fact, it is more powerful than peer pressure. But the key to such involvement is a genuine connection between parent and child. Ironically, technology-enabled snooping actually prods our kids to engage in more of the very computer-based behavior we’re trying to avoid.

In the WSJ article previously mentioned, teens made it clear that they had the computer sophistication to get around many of their parents’ technology roadblocks and considered it a challenge to do so. Worse, the parents using these technologies are betraying any sense of trust and diminishing the opportunity to build new relational connections with their offspring. Their behavior also sends the message that the solution to interpersonal problems lies in technology.

Power Down

So, what is a parent to do? I believe this is the time to turn off the technology and connect on a human level: to talk, understand and interact with our kids. Rather than up the ante in the technology battle, this is an opportunity to try to genuinely understand what issues may be leading to these upsetting behaviors in your child. And that can be achieved only by having a heart-to-heart talk that is nonjudgmental, mutual (not a lecture!) and open-ended.

A method I developed primarily for working with taciturn teen boys, but that works for all kids, is called action talk. Put simply, it means not forcing kids to open up before they are ready. Rather, choose an activity they enjoy?from chess to basketball to (dare I say it?) computer games?and engage in it with them in a space safe from observers, criticism or ridicule: a shame-free zone. Don’t ask too many questions at first?just play. Slowly broach the topic and then provide emotional space and time for response (no badgering). Eventually, whether on the first foray or several activities later, you’ll be surprised at how well your child opens up.

This is exactly what Rick’s mother chose to do. Without denying the seriousness of her son’s actions, she suggested they do something together he’d enjoy. He responded immediately, inviting her to play his new computer game. With Rick happily winning every round, his mom carefully broached the question of those websites. A little uncomfortable at first, Rick explained that a lot of the kids at school were talking about sex and that he was interested but confused. He reminded his mother that when the topic had come up at dinner his father had seemed embarrassed and she had suggested they talk about it later. But later had never come. So, in the absence of the parent-child connection, what better alternative than to explore on the Internet.

Rick’s mom then took a bold move and asked her son if they could view the sites together. “Sure, I guess so,” he responded hesitatingly. Seen from this new perspective, Rick’s mom lost her sense of exasperation and disgust and Rick became a little less guarded?if still a bit shy. Mom began to talk about girls’ bodies and their interest and concerns about sexuality. The two even had a lively discussion about the demeaning portrayal of females in the media. Rick was able to reconnect with parental wisdom, and the computer had returned to its rightful place as a tool for learning rather than a seducer of lost souls.

Imagine how different things would have been if Rick’s mom had lectured him or begun spying through technology. The moral, if there is one, may be that we must become neither mindless Luddites nor Big Brothers using IT to breach our trust with the next generation. Instead, we must rely on an open, honest relationship with our children.

Do you think technology should be used to spy on kids? Let us know at Dr. William S. Pollack is on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. He is the author of numerous books about parents, children and gender issues, including Real Boys (Holt/Owl, 1999), Real Boys Voices (Penguin, 2001) and Real Boys Workbook (Random/Villard, 2001).