Digital Life

Should you stalk your child's smartphone?

With smartphones, handhelds and wi-fi hotspots everywhere, keeping an eye over your child's shoulder on the home computer is so last century. Instead surveillance apps let you track your child's every text, phone call, photo and web site visit, without them knowing. But should you? 

Why you might want to 

Kids these days don't just have the world at their feet, they carry it around in their pockets on their smartphones.

Teens and texting - what do parents need to know?
Teens and texting - what do parents need to know?  Photo: iStock

The best of it, and the worst of it, and that's the scary part. What if they're cyberbullied? Groomed online by a predatory paedophile? Distorted by internet pornography, ruined by risque sexting, fleeced by financial scammers?

The biggest survey of sexting in Australia by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that one in two out of 1200 teenage girls and boys had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves. 

A survey found half of teenagers have sexted sexually explicit images of themselves.
A survey found half of teenagers have sexted sexually explicit images of themselves. 

In a recent poll of Australian teenagers, nearly half (48 per cent) said they had lied to a parent about what they do online or on an app. Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) admitted to having a secret account their parents didn't know about, and 58 per cent said they hid stuff from their parents on their phones or devices. (This was a survey on the website of Adelaide radio station Mix 102.3, admittedly unscientific, but the Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner referred to it as an indication of what's happening.)

The academic research is worrying too. More than 90 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls aged 13-16 said they'd seen pornography online. Over 80 per cent of the boys and over 60 per cent of the girls in the survey of 700 teenagers said they'd been exposed to sexual comments. 

On average, Australian children are just under eight years old when they start using the Internet, making them among the youngest starters in a 26 nation study. And 30 per cent of Australian 9-16 year olds in the same 2011 study reported encountering something online that upset or bothered them – that's two and a half times the European average.

Why you probably shouldn't 

  • Under the NSW Surveillance Devices Act it is illegal in most circumstances to monitor and record someone's private conversations without their consent. The TeenSafe app, which claims one million users in the US, requires them to certify they will only use it to monitor children for whom they are the legal guardian. There may be a legal grey area if a child is mature enough to be able to provide or withhold informed consent, says David Vaile, co-convenor, Cyberspace Law and Policy Community at the University of NSW. 
  • Because it's "parenting by remote" says Susan McLean, a longtime Victorian police officer who now travels the country speaking to schools and parents on cybersafety. The people selling monitoring apps prey on vulnerable, panicked, time poor parents, and  "if you have those sort of trust issues, you have a lot more problems than what your child is doing on the Internet", she says.
  • Because it can give you a false sense of security and your child is potentially a few steps ahead anyway, by either switching to a device you don't know about or using masking apps that hide their activities, says Alastair MacGibbon, Children's E-safety Commissioner.
  • Because depending on their age and stage, it's an invasion of their privacy, "just as you would not read their diary or go into their room unannounced", says Marilyn Campbell, Professor of Education at the Queensland University of Technology and cyberbullying expert.
  • Because children need to be exposed to some level of risk online so they can develop the skills, practices and attitudes to deal with it, says Amanda Third, principal research fellow in digital and social cultural research at Western Sydney University.
  • Because the notion you can prevent anything bad from happening to them online is a "dangerous delusion", says Mr Vaile.
In a survey, 58 per cent of teenagers said they hid stuff from their parents on their phones or devices.
In a survey, 58 per cent of teenagers said they hid stuff from their parents on their phones or devices. Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast

Here's a better idea

The devices through which children can run into contact or content problems online are usually provided to them by their parents, often at an early age, points out Professor Campbell. She rejects the plea of ignorance from parents who say they can't keep up with their kids online because they don't know how the devices work. If you don't understand smart phones, you shouldn't be buying them for your children, says Professor Campbell.

Your responsibility is the same as if you were teaching your child to ride a bike, she says. First you show them how to do it, then you ride with them for a while, you give them rules, make sure they wear a helmet, and gradually let them go about more independently as they become more skilled and experienced. 

Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding 

Now that digital media is so integral to everyday family life, the conversations around it "need to start very young", says Dr Third. "The moment you start to show them your iPad or show them a photo online, however innocuous those moments might seem, they are the opportunities to talk to your children about what good media practices look like and how (your) family's values align with that." 

And as children get older, the experts recommend you actively monitor their online activities so you know where they are going and who they are talking to, just as you would in the physical world, and that they are not flouting any age restrictions in their online activities. 

Cyber-safety expert Susan McLean.
Cyber-safety expert Susan McLean. Photo: Michael Lallo

"I realise it is hard but this is about constantly having conversations with your kids about what they are seeing and what they do online, how they do it and who they are speaking to." He asks his kids to teach him how to use the apps they are using. "I might download the apps and give it a shot. Because of that I can have these conversations with my kids about how they act online."

"There might be times when you should intervene if you think there is going to be trouble, but it's better if you can have trust and open dialogue," he says.

Surveillance by device is a "potentially serious breach of trust which can interfere with the open communication that appears to be at the heart of the process of gradually developing resilience", says Mr Vaile.

Amanda Third says research shows "very compellingly" that the best online protection children can have is active monitoring plus the security of a set of values and principles that help them to make sense of what they see online and to deal with it, by clicking away and by talking to a trusted adult if they are upset.

It's when children don't know what to do or who to talk to, or when they see something online that reinforces something bad they have seen in real life, that they are vulnerable to harm, Dr Third says. 

And a quick reality check 

Dr Third points out that the children who are the most vulnerable online are the same children who are most vulnerable offline, for example those without a trusted adult to turn to. 

The research is also clear, she says, that children don't approach the online world in a moral vacuum. Instead they carry with them the rules and values they have learned in real life: "They translate their moral capacities into online domains and that has a very protective effect for them." 

Plus, fewer parents will feel the kind of anxiety around their kids' phone and internet use as this generation of relatively clueless parents become grandparents. Then the parents will be digital natives born since 1995, for whom none of this stuff is a mystery and safe digital practices are simply common sense. We hope.