The PM’s new childhood adviser, Tory MP Claire Perry, thinks social media is a threat that parents should monitor
Should parents spy on their children’s emails and texts?
To snoop, or not to snoop? That is the question on every parent’s mind after the cri de coeur from Tory MP Claire Perry, who has urged us to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged teenagers by taking arms against the pernicious threat of social media. David Cameron’s new adviser on childhood claims that we have a duty to hack into our children’s emails and monitor their texts.
Perry, who represents Devizes and has three children, accuses society of being “complicit” in creating a culture in which youngsters are free to make inappropriate contact with “strangers at all hours of the day and night”.
Not unreasonably, she suggests curtailing online activity late at night by unplugging the internet router. More controversially, she says that children have no right to keep their messages private and that parents ought to feel empowered enough to demand access to them.
Really? If you suspect your child is sexting – sending explicit images of themselves – there is a clear-cut case for intervention. But where do the boundaries lie between safeguarding and surveillance? What you regard as justified protectiveness could be construed as gratuitous prying.
A recent discussion on the parenting website parentdish.co.uk, entitled “Invading your teen’s privacy: nosy or caring?”, threw up a wide spectrum of views. “The parentdish audience is anxious about children and technology,” says Tamsin Kelly, site editor and mother of three. “There is quite a marked but even split between those who say their role as a parent is to police their children while they are under their roof and check on everything, and those who adopt a more trusting position, albeit with parameters.”
Kelly believes that technology should be part of family life with the sort of set of rules and expectations that you have for table manners or bedtimes. But she cautions against “hysterical nervousness”.
“I wouldn’t demand that my child hands over their phone for me to check, but I would expect to be their Facebook friend, for them to leave laptops downstairs at bedtime and to have ongoing conversations with them about potential dangers,” she says. “I also think it’s my role as a parent to keep up-to-date with any new technology that my children might want to use.”
Maintaining communication is crucial. If you are caught spying on your child, you risk creating a situation in which the child keeps secrets, is angry with you and rebels by leading a separate online life.
Overt scrutiny relies on mutual agreement, but can work – at least with younger children. I have a 10-year-old daughter and, yes, I routinely cast a benign eye over the texts and emails she sends. We have discussed the reasons why she must never write anything she wouldn’t say to a person’s face, and she is happy – for now – that I am keeping an eye on her and out for her.
But as she gets older, it will be harder to keep tabs, not least if she changes her PIN. I suspect that I’ll find a way, although discretion will be the byword.
Teenagers have a natural desire for privacy, which doesn’t necessarily equate with illicit behaviour. Yet there are dangers. A friend, a father of two daughters in their late teens, discovered some years ago that his younger child had been entering chat rooms, despite being expressly forbidden from doing so.
“The computer was in a family area, and one evening when I walked in, I noticed my daughter, who was then 13, scrambling to shut down the site that she had been looking at,” he says. “I made her put it back on the screen and discovered she’d been using a chat room and had been getting deeply inappropriate messages from a man with an unthinkably crude logon.”
The girl had been bewildered and upset but the man was so persistent that she hadn’t known how to end the exchange.
“I fired off a furious a message saying I was her dad, that I was calling the police to find out if he was traceable and that, if he was, I would get his details and go around personally to ‘have a word’. That stopped the messages.”
Thereafter he maintained a watching brief, but was conscious not to appear heavy-handed.
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable to want to know who your children are talking to online,” he says. “But once they get older, you have to ease off. You can’t micromanage their lives.”
Recent research by the NSPCC revealed that sexting is so widespread as to be considered mundane. Girls as young as 13 send topless and naked photographs on their mobile phones without hesitation, regarding it as a form of flirtation.
While middle-class parents might be horrified, evidence suggests that socio-demographics do not play any role in dictating who engages in the practice. According to psychologist and author Oliver James, as soon as a parent hands their child a smartphone, they have “entered the Wild West” and are virtually guaranteed to explore the furthest frontiers of cyberspace, including hard-core pornography. Most will have a quick peek but won’t linger.
“If you have a good relationship with your children, you have nothing to worry about,” says James, blithely. “The vast majority of kids don’t come to any harm; if you think you have the sort of troubled child who is vulnerable, then what are they doing owning a piece of equipment that can lead them into difficulties?”
With a son aged eight and a daughter who has just turned 11, James, whose most recent book is Love Bomb: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat, is resigned to giving them technological freedom, while ensuring that they feel loved enough to turn to him for support if and when they need it.
“Yes, there are people online pretending to be 16 when they are really 30 or 50, but what can you do?” he says. “If your child has half a brain they can spot a fake. And besides, I have absolute confidence that my children will be moderate and sensible.”
But his views clash with those of fellow psychologist Prof Tanya Byron, who has sounded the alarm over children being “raised in captivity”, because of paranoia over health and safety. “Children are not free range any more,” she told the North of England Education Conference last week. “There are no more predators on the streets, no more paedophiles, than when I was growing up in the 1970s, yet children are rarely seen out. Instead, they are having a blast in this fantastic global space. I would argue that they are more vulnerable there than if they were hanging out on the street.”
Lucy Russell, director of campaigns at the Young Minds charity, stresses the importance of children learning how to experience the world and build up emotional resilience by dealing with problematic situations. Trying to cocoon them isn’t the answer; helping them if they are floundering is much more beneficial.
“You have to have conversations so that they can ask for help,” says Russell. “Children are incredibly savvy in terms of technology, and they will find ways to do whatever it is you want them not to do. Parents are kidding themselves if they think they can control social media.”
Also, rules imposed in the later years of primary school won’t be appropriate for teenagers. “When my children were younger I insisted I was a friend on Facebook, but now they are 15 and 16 they have blocked me,” she says. “I accept that, but I have friends who tell me what’s going on. The relationship with your children should be one of trust and honesty – but with a little well-intentioned spying, via a circuitous route.”
So, if to snoop or not to snoop is the question, the answer would appear to be: yes, but for heaven’s sake don’t get caught.
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