Cyber-Safety: To Spy or Not To Spy

To Spy or Not to Spy?

I am the founder of a tech company (The Social U) that specializes in scanning and scoring social media accounts for students to ensure that what they post online doesn’t prevent them from getting an internship, a job, a scholarship or into college. We also educate young people on various issues concerning cyber-safety and online etiquette.

A big part of my job involves giving educational presentations to students and parents about social media pitfalls and concerns so it’s no surprise that I have Google Alerts on my email account that let me know about relevant online articles so I can keep abreast of current news and what’s trending when it comes to teens and twenty-somethings and social media.  A recent article that appeared in my feed caused me to pause the other day:


You should know that I am a big fan of Common Sense Media.  I think they do a wonderful job taking a vast amount of information and making it easy to find and understand for parents, educators and students.  I often refer people to their site when they ask about apps, games, movies, etc.  That said, the title of this article “Apps to Help You Spy on Your Kid” made me cringe a bit.

There is always one parent in the crowd at every one of my programs who wants to know how to access everything their teen is doing online (from texts, to social media, to knowing where they are at every given moment).  My response to the parent who asks this type of question is always “do you NEED to know everything your child is doing online or do you just WANT to know?”.  If you have a child who is using/abusing drugs or alcohol, a child with depression or another type of mental illness or a child who is going through something that calls for increased scrutiny that qualifies as a NEED.

The reality today is that most parents of teens don’t NEED to know everything – they WANT to know everything.

It’s hard for this generation of helicopter parents who from the time their child was born, control or are involved in every decision the child makes to separate themselves from their child and allow them some degree of privacy.

Parents, can you imagine your mother or father listening in on your telephone conversations with your friends or boy/girlfriend when you were in middle school or high school?  What about if they read all the notes you passed at school?  What if they regularly demanded you make your diary available to them to read?  Spying on your teen electronically is akin to all those things that would have caused you great outrage when you were a teenager.

I understand why we want to know – teens aren’t terribly (if at all) forthcoming about their personal lives to their parents; the media tells us that we need to know what our kids are doing online in order to ensure their cyber-safety - we hear horror stories about teens who found themselves in a great deal of trouble because of their online activity – all these examples and more ring alarm bells in our heads and cause us to think we NEED to know everything they are doing so we can keep them safe.

The truth is, parents need to spend more time educating their kids about appropriate vs. inappropriate online behavior and less time being “big brother” online.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t monitor their activity to some degree – we should.  Parents of tweens and teens should be looking a few times a week to see what their kids are posting and when they see something they don’t like they should talk about it with them – offline.

While the article points out a number of perfectly good apps parents can use to spy on their kids, I think better advice is to get yourself out from behind the screen and teach your kids about what’s ok and what’s not ok to post online.  Show them examples of posts that aren’t ok and let them learn about the consequences for others have faced for posting without thinking.

Think about the Chinese proverb about giving vs. teaching.  When we spy on our kids online, our focus is on scolding and saying “no” instead of focusing on teaching them how to use social media to express themselves in a way that won’t end up hurting them or causing them consequences they didn’t want or expect.

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Julie Fisher, M.Ed., is the founder of The Social U and consults with schools, organizations and individuals through the MJ Fisher Group.  

Twitter: @Julz Fisher, @the_social_u