Delia Lloyd: Is It Ever OK to Spy on Your Kids?

I’ve mentioned before that my 10-year-old son seems to have entered adolescence early.

And while that solves certain problems, it opens up a host of others. Like how to monitor what he’s up to on the computer.

Whereas that once amounted to limiting his time on Fifa 09, it now amounts to making sure that he’s not surreptitiously downloading Assassin’s Creed onto our iPhone.

So when I saw that his school was offering a free parenting discussion group about boys and the Internet, I thought, “Why not?” and went along.

I showed up, pen in hand, thinking that the nice lady offering the seminar was going to give me a list of websites I could visit and download all the appropriate Internet controls.

Wrong. While she did direct us to one or two websites, the very first point that she made was that however much you think you might be able to control what your kids do on the computer, you can’t. If they don’t see whatever it is you don’t want them seeing at your own home, they’ll see it at a friends’ home.

Or they’ll discover a way to get around the controls. One gentleman at the seminar noted that his 13-year-old was at boarding school where the boys get their own rooms. Apparently, in his very first term, his son had not only gotten around the school’s firewalls for pornography and the like, the kid was actually administering them. (And I could totally see my computer-savvy child doing exactly the same thing.)

So takeaway point #1 from this meeting was that the best way to manage the Internet with a teenager is not to devise ever more secure locks, as I’d perhaps naively hoped. It was to start talking with your son or daughter — now. Talk to them about the kinds of images they might encounter on the web, talk to them about the kinds of people they might encounter on the web, talk to them about how to handle potentially inappropriate content when they are out of the home.

Which was, upon reflection, sort of reassuring.

But the meeting also raised some other interesting challenges for parenting teens.

There was one priceless moment where one of the moms confessed that she’d discovered recently that her son, aged 10, had been googling “Girls’ bottoms” on the Internet. The mom’s response was to wait about a week and then give her son a book about human anatomy (without telling her son that she’d been monitoring his “history” on the Internet).

“You mean you’re spying on your son?” one dad asked, in shock.

“Well, I wouldn’t call it spying,” the mom responded. “It’s more like benevolent monitoring.”

“And you’re not going to tell him that you’re spying on him?” the dad continued.

“No. If I tell him, then I won’t be able to keep checking up on his history. And I want to be able to do that.”

(Allow me to reveal that this exchange was quite possibly the closest I’d ever come to witnessing open conflict between two English people during my five years living in the U.K., and the journalist in me was lapping it up. More to the point, in a country where there’s one CCTV camera for every 32 people, the political implications of where you fall on “spying” vs. “benevolent monitoring” were hard to miss.)

Interestingly, about half of the parents in the room thought that checking up on your kids behind their backs was absolutely fine and could see themselves doing something similar. There was even one woman who thought that children shouldn’t have access to the Internet — at all! — before they were 14. (Sorry, honey, I’m deeply sympathetic, but I think that horse has left the barn.)

The other half of those assembled were less comfortable with this mom’s self-described “benevolent monitoring” and felt that — at a minimum — she should have told her son what she was doing.

I found myself somewhere in the middle. I don’t check my son’s email routinely, though when it’s open I do find myself glancing down at his inbox to see if anything inappropriate has surfaced. On the other hand, I do think that if you’re going to talk to your kid about sex, it’s probably best to do it directly rather than indirectly.

What do you think? Is it ever OK to spy on your kids — on the Internet or anywhere else? And should you tell them that you’re doing it?

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