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Healthy Children

with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Should we spy on our kids? (PART 2)

In my previous blog, I discussed the multiple new technologies that allow you to keep tabs on your 21st century child. But should you? It led to interesting opinions expressed in the comments – from “Spy, spy, spy” to “No way, you should trust your kids”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about it and wanted to share my thoughts, with the usual caveat that there is no “one size fits all” way to go. Some kids will be trustworthy and safe no matter what you as a parent do (or don’t do), and some kids are going to engage in very worrisome, dangerous, behaviors even if you implanted a nano-chip in their brains that monitored their every movement and thought.


Question #1 : Should you spy on your kids?

This is the only question about which I feel there is only one answer: NO!

Spying implies gathering information on your child without him/her knowing it. This is a bad idea because:

  • It will surely erode their trust (rightfully so!) if and when they find out you’ve been sneaking around, playing gotcha!
  • It sends the message that you absolutely have no confidence in them (on whom do we spy? Terrorists and such!).
  • Since it’s a secret, it does not let them know you are concerned about them and want to keep tabs on their comings and goings and be involved in their lives.
  • Since it’s a big secret (at least, for a while), it doesn’t lead to discussions about what is and isn’t reasonable behavior (both teen’s and parents’).
  • Most importantly, it does not serve to prevent any dangerous behaviors, since they are unaware you are even monitoring them.


Question #2: Should you monitor your child’s activities with technology?

I vote YES.

“Monitoring” (as opposed to “spying”) efforts are known and discussed with your teen. This sends the right message: I care for you. I’m concerned about you. I trust you, but with verification. I want and need to be a part of your life, even if you don’t like the idea. Let’s talk about this.

However there are levels of intrusiveness in monitoring. I am not in favor of the most intrusive monitoring: reading their e-mails or text messages, because it smacks of spying. But less intrusive monitoring makes sense to me:

  • Using a device in the car to monitor speed, location, swerves, etc. (Sorry, teen drivers scare me, I don’t care how responsible s/he is.) Having this monitored allows him/her to resist the goading of others to speed or head off to a bad part of town (“Oh, I’d like to go 85, but mom and dad will know and kill me.”). Surviving the teen years trumps everything else and I think this helps.
  • Watching the sites frequented on the internet seems an important and reasonable (only mildly intrusive) area to keep tabs on. We all know the internet has plenty of icky, dark corners and you want to be sure your child isn’t visiting any of them.
  • Certainly you should read whatever your child has publicly posted on the internet. Why should any nut job be able to read her profile on MySpace, but not you?


The bottom line, of course, is that nothing beats open communication. But (sorry, folks) all teens lie to their parents or, at least, don’t tell the whole truth. That’s OK, except in cases that could seriously jeopardize their well-being.

I think the mistake many parents make is to disengage from their teens’ lives because they feel so unwelcome in it. Instead, I would argue that’s when you need to be even more – not less – involved, to be a pain in the butt, to be “too strict”, to show you still care, to endlessly talk about it.

Spy, no. Monitor, by all means.

Your thoughts?

Related Topics: Teens and Cybersex: A Threat to Real Intimacy?, WebMD Video: The Teen Brain

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 9:52 pm


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