Parental Digital Monitoring

September 13, 2011

Kids live in their own world. Are you in it?

If you really want to know what your kids are thinking, saying and doing, you need to spend more time in their world— and increasingly, that world is online.

Kids spend, on average, nearly seven hours a day with “new media,” taking away time with family, sports, rest and other extracurricular activities (Kaiser Family Foundation, Generation M2, 2010). According to the Kaiser Study, today’s 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of an hour and a half daily using the computer outside of schoolwork—50 percent more than just five years ago. Add to this an increase in cellphone usage (up 27 percent), and today’s youth are connected, engaged and distracted beyond their parents’ wildest dreams (or fears).

New media means new risks.

Youth who connect online face a host of influences outside their social circles; influences that keenly and convincingly glamorize the use of risky substances, including alcohol. According to Partnership for Drug-Free America’s Steve Perserb, “Kids today are bombarded with an array of pro-drug and pro-alcohol messages via everything from song lyrics, movies and video games to social networking sites—that’s why it is even more important than ever for parents to break through the media noise and make their voices heard.”

Much has been written about the risks of letting our children have too much freedom online, from cyberbullying, inappropriate solicitations and contact with unknown users, to sexting. More than 40 percent of teens with online access have reported being bullied online (National Crime Prevention Center). One in five teens online say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation online, yet 75 percent of kids don’t tell a parent (Crimes against Children Research Center).

It is no long a question of whether or not a parent should monitor their children’s online activities, but how.

Establish a clear “online monitoring” rule.

As the risks increase, parents are becoming more conscientious in their attempts to monitor and protect their children, but they may be neglecting time spent with multimedia. Nearly two-thirds of households are not using any kind of software to protect or limit their kids’ online activity (Center for Missing or Exploited Children).

Monitoring your children’s activities online isn’t always easy. Among other things, kids are using privacy settings to their advantage, with nearly 80 percent of teens reporting using settings to hide content from certain friends or parents. That is why it is so important to establish and enforce a clear “online monitoring” rule with your kids.

Kids who feel monitored are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

We conducted several focus groups with parents to discover what they are doing to monitor their children’s use of new media. Here are a few ideas that they found to be effective:

Have an open dialogue about risky behaviors online.

Insist on employing privacy settings and software.

Create a set of rules, limits and expectations for online behavior.
Position use as a privilege, not a given, and a privilege over which parents have the ultimate authority.
Consider taking possession of cellphones, computers, video games and all other online tools at night.
Keep computers in a public area of the home.
Friend kids online and follow their updates daily (but don’t embarrass your kids by commenting online).

A host of tools are available to make it easier for parents to monitor their kid’s online activity. While we don’t endorse any particular product, the following list contains links to a few you may wish to consider. Some even offer smartphone apps.

Tools to help monitor their kids

Trend Micro: subscription-based, comprehensive parental controls, social network monitoring and Internet filtering.
Social Shield: cloud-based service that allows parents to monitor their kid’s use of social networks.
GoGo Stat Parental Guidance: new, free Facebook application that monitors online activity.
McAfee Family Protection: provides parental controls to protect children from social networking risks, cyberbullying and other online threats.

Start early and stay involved.

Like many parenting skills, monitoring your children’s online activities is easiest when you establish policies and expectations early. Although the tendency is for parents to become less involved as their children age, even older teens need their parents’ help to stay alcohol-free.

Stay connected. Keep your kids safe.

Responsible parenting means staying aware of their friends, activities and influences throughout their lives. Social networking gives parents even greater power to live in their child’s world and to protect them from it.