Talk; don’t stalk.
That’s the advice I’ve started giving when parents wonder whether they should secretly monitor their kids on social media. Worried that their children are being cyber-bullied/seduced/ corrupted/everything-bad-a-parent can-imagine (including cyberencouraged to send cyber-sexy photos), they seem rather open to advertisements such as this:
“With sexting, cyberstalking, cyberbullying and internet predators in abundance, parents need to closely monitor what their teens are doing on the Internet and beyond. The best way to do this is to use the newest technology available to spy on their teens. Kids may not appreciate it, but it’s important for parents to know what their teens are up to at this impressionable age when they don’t always make good decisions.”
The ad, for a tech company, goes on to suggest 10 different ways to secretly keep tabs on everything your kids are up to, including hanging hidden cameras around the house, hiding a GPS in their car and installing a monitor to keep track of their computer activity. “These monitors can record every keystroke, websites visited, take screen snapshots and give you detailed reports.”
That sounds less like parenting and more like putting your child under FBI surveillance. Sure, the idea is to keep children safe. But since when did it become normal to treat our kids the way we treat al-Qaida recruits?
To understand what’s wrong with this approach, think back to when you were a teenager. Did you keep a diary? Now imagine how you’d have felt if your parents had read it — and not just once in a while but every time you wrote an entry. Even the pages you tore out and ripped up.
I believe I might have had a serious breakdown if my parents had done that to me. I would have been mortified to think of them reading about my secret crushes. And what about the silly things I wrote about them? I could pour out my heart because in my heart, I trusted my parents. If I’d learned they’d been spying on me, even out of love, I’d have gone stone-cold. Their fear that I could have been screwing up my life could have — ironically enough — seriously screwed up my life.
Of course, not everyone keeps a diary, so if you didn’t, think of parental stalking this way: Did you ever talk on the phone after school? Maybe for hours? How would you have felt if your parents had silently picked up the line in their bedroom and listened in?
So why do today’s parents think cyberstalking is any different?
It’s true the Internet is not the same as a Princess phone (or diary). But neither is it a citadel of sin. Most kids just hang out with their friends, just as they do at the mall. Though it’s become commonplace to hear “1 in 7 youths have received an unwanted sexual solicitation online,” that does not mean 1 in 7 have encountered a predator. Not at all, says David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and the professor behind that statistic. Many of the so-called solicitations, he says, were simply rude comments — the online equivalent of a wolf whistle.
Likewise, while parents fear that their kids will be cyberbullied, the latest research shows that online bullying is actually less common than bullying in “real life,” and even real-life bullying is on the wane. It’s just not on the wane in the media, because the media love sensational stories, especially when they combine our two biggest fears — child tormentors and texting plans.
New technologies always scare people. When telegraphs came in, people worried they’d change the worldwide weather patterns. Parents now fret that the Internet is worse than anything kids ever have encountered, and to them, that justifies the spying. But kids always have encountered dangers: sex, drugs, cults — even comic books. The best antidotes of old are still the best today: communication and honesty.
Talk; don’t stalk.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the- Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”