One minute you know everything about her, down to her favourite cereal; the next, she’s a pre-teen with a curious mind and her own TikTok profile. As one third of parents admit to spying on their kids’ online activity, Tanith Carey examines the fine line between caring and control…
Since her 11-year-old daughter Alice returned to school at the start of September, there hasn’t been a moment when Jennifer hasn’t known precisely where she is – or who she’s talking to. Not only does the tracking app that Jennifer has installed on Alice’s phone show her as a moving red dot on a map, it also allows Jennifer to follow wherever she goes in cyberspace too, from what she’s watching on YouTube to whatever she’s saying to her friends on WhatsApp.
‘If I could put a microchip in her body, I would,’ says Jennifer, 40, a former child protection officer who lives near Reading. ‘It’s not that I don’t trust Alice – it’s the other people out there. You don’t know who could be following her online. And now she’s older and needs to use the internet more for homework, I can’t be with her every minute of the day in case she stumbles across something she shouldn’t.’
Jennifer thinks that Alice – who knows her mother has the app, as it also has to be installed on her phone – feels safer knowing she is on the lookout for her. The UK government had already identified excessive screen time for children as an emerging concern, but in a year when the schools were closed and children have been online more than ever, it is no surprise that more parents are panicking about what their children are doing, seeing or who they are talking to.
A survey of 2,000 parents and children by research firm Censuswide found that one third of British parents now spy on their children’s internet activity and that cyber-dangers have replaced sex and drugs as parents’ biggest worry. And according to an Ofcom survey this year, more parents than ever feel their children’s online activities carry more risks than benefits – such as seeing material that might encourage self-harm, spending money on video games or being exposed to cyber-bullying.
So is it really surprising that we might want to monitor our children – our most precious asset of all? We can already track our pets, our shopping, our sleep and our steps. And there’s an ever-growing number of apps available: ones that can capture every keystroke your child makes, remotely check their browsing history, monitor messages in real time or alert you if a youngster steps out of a designated ‘geo-fenced’ area you can draw around home and school.
Security expert Will Geddes, author of Parent Alert! How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online says we are living in an era when there is a unique set of risks. ‘Almost 50 per cent of girls under the age of 13 will have a conversation with a stranger online that their parents won’t know about. They could be approached via direct messages on social media platforms such as Instagram or TikTok, or through online games such as Minecraft on their chat boards. From there, there’s always the possibility that a child could be groomed, or it could turn into a face-to-face meeting.’
While Will believes that you should always tell your child you are tracking them – or it’s a betrayal of their trust – he understands that parents feel they need a hand to keep up. ‘There’s a reason a young person is not viewed as mature enough to drive a car until they are 17,’ he says. ‘It’s not fair to expect children and younger teens to be mature enough to navigate all the many risks of the internet on their own.’
Among these worried parents is pilates teacher Gerry Griffiths, who installed an app on her eight-year-old daughter Grace’s iPad at the end of the summer holidays. Mindful of not wanting to spy on all of her daughter’s conversations, she chose SafeToNet, an app that doesn’t ‘show her everything’. Instead, it uses artificial intelligence to filter risks to the child in real time and flashes up alerts and advice to children in case they wander into more risky territory – which could include responding to sexualised messages or taking part in aggressive conversations. The app also sends reports back to parents if it spots language or searches that could be signs of low self-esteem, bullying or dark thoughts such as material about suicide or self-harm.
Gerry, 40, from Ripon, North Yorkshire, who is also mum to Anna, aged six, says: ‘During lockdown, we did a lot of home-schooling and while Anna never uses the iPad without me, Grace was using the internet more for research. I wanted the peace of mind of knowing that it would flag up if she had accidentally strayed into an area where she might see something inappropriate.
‘For example, we found out how easily that could happen when she was researching a project on tepees. Siri [the virtual assistant on the iPad] misheard her question ‘what’s the world’s largest tepee?’ as ‘what is the world’s largest penis?’ We laughed about it at the time, as luckily I was in the room. But I won’t always be.’
With more children reportedly suffering from anxiety as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gerry also feels reassured that the app will pick up some of Grace’s internet searches if she ever feels down or worried about something. ‘As they get older, I think children can find it difficult to talk about certain issues. When I was a teenager, I didn’t want to talk to my mum about anything. So I hope that if Grace was ever searching for help, the fact that the app would flag that up would allow me to open up a conversation with her about it.’
Emily Goodall, 43, founder of travel accessory company bundlebean.com, installed the same app for her children Matilda, 13, and William, 11, in readiness for the new school year. Emily, who lives with husband Benedict near Pewsey, Wiltshire, says: ‘There have been incidences of online aggression with my daughter’s friends being mean to each other. Online, things can flare up pretty quickly, so hopefully the app would make her think twice before saying something.’
But are we confusing being a good parent with being an omniscient one? If so, could we be doing it at the expense of our children’s independence? As more parents install apps, it seems that the carefree vision of childhood is vanishing fast, to be replaced by a world in which they are told they can never be trusted.
‘Most of the time, wanting to track your child comes from a good place,’ says Andy Phippen, professor of IT Ethics and Digital Rights at Bournemouth University. ‘But we should also question whether young people should even be on some of the platforms these apps monitor. Then, as children get older, I have serious concerns around whether tracking apps are about reassurance or control.’
Professor Phippen also worries about the accuracy of algorithms which claim to be able to spot cyber-bullying. ‘A lot of what might look like mean messages to the parent is often just banter, particularly between boys. If kids do fall out, they might exchange a bit of abuse online then they’ll be friends again by morning. But if the parents viewing their messages charge into the school the next day, saying: “My child’s being cyber-bullied. What are you going to do about it?” that makes the problem worse.’
If we are raising our children to believe that being tracked is the same as being loved and cared for, Professor Phippen questions what messages we are sending to the next generation about relationships. ‘Under domestic abuse guidelines, tracking other people is taken as evidence of coercive behaviour and their use can result in harsher sentencing in abuse trials. If people are used to this through their childhoods, are we also prepared for them to accept it if their partner also tracks their every move in years to come?’
Indeed, in an era where we are always encouraged to check in with our children on their feelings, don’t we also have to ask what young people think? While a primary-age child may feel more secure knowing their parents know where they are and what they are doing, a teenager is likely to resent the intrusion. You only have to check Google to see that for every online search for ‘How can I track my kids?’ there are just as many asking; ‘How can I stop my parents tracking me?’ Noah is one such 13-year-old boy who has been monitored by his parents since he started secondary school. Far from feeling safer, the North London teenager feels spied upon. He says: ‘Teens need their personal space. We express ourselves on our phones. We really don’t want parents confronting us over some text sent to a mate in a disagreement we can deal with on our own. All my mates and I swear and call each other names. It doesn’t mean we are cyber-bullying. As long as parents educate kids about dangers, it should be fine. Give us some credit. It’s our life and we want freedom to live it.’
‘It’s vital that children can discuss what takes place online with their parents or trusted adults without parents being punitive or overreacting,’ says Sonia Livingstone, a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and author of the new book Parenting for a Digital Future. What’s more, ‘not every child is equally at risk. Kids have got to build up a resilience to what happens online themselves, but that does mean some exposure to what’s out there, within limits.’
But for now, Jennifer still believes she needs tough safeguards. ‘I never want to be the parent thinking: “I wish I’d kept a closer eye on my child.” My daughter is at much too delicate a stage of life for me to let her wander through cyberspace alone.
‘Just as parents should monitor what their kids eat, sleep and learn, it’s only responsible for me to monitor what she’s seeing online, too.’
How to keep children safe
However challenging their behaviour, avoid leaving your child ruminating in their room for hours with their phone. Studies show that children who are lonely or isolated are more likely to be successfully targeted by online predators or bullying behaviour. Let them know you are always there if they need help or support, and if an incident does flare up, respond proportionately so they keep being open with you.
Create opportunities to talk
Have daily chats where you openly talk with your child without jumping in to correct or judge – it could be during regular walks, errands or activities at home. Ask them to talk you through their social media feeds and explain what’s happening so you can better understand.
Listen to why they don’t want it
If you’ve installed an app on your child’s phone and they ask you to remove it, hear them out. Think back to when you were their age and whether you would have appreciated being monitored. If they have a history of being open about problems online, see that as a sign they are ready to go it alone. Ask them about their privacy settings and what they can do to keep themselves safe.
Tanith Carey’s book What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents is published by DK, £16.99. Order a copy for £10.99 until 1 November at whsmith.co.uk by entering code YOUTEEN at checkout. Book number: 9780241389461. Terms and conditions: whsmith.co.uk/terms.
*Some names have been changed.