Monitoring = Spying and can never build trust

A lot of buzz happening this week in the papers and on line revolving around the monitoring of teens on line activities.  First there was this article on talking to teens about the internet and then yesterday this piece in the Times  about the suicide of a 12 year old girl that may have been prompted in part by cyber-bullying.

The basic premise is that there are too many ways for kids to get into trouble on line and that it is almost impossible for parents to keep up with all the latest social media trends.  The solution?   Monitor your kids on line activity until they “prove ” they are trustworthy.   Read their texts.  Periodically take away their phones.  Access their online accounts and their computer history.

Here’s the problem.   Spying on someone is a sure fire way to get them NOT to trust you.   It is, however, a great way to motivate them to get better at sneaking around, going behind your back and finding ways around the rules.  Even some schools, like this one in California, want to monitor kids public social media posts.  They say this will help curb bullying and inappropriate use of social media.

I wonder what adults would think if the same measures were imposed on them?

The first time mother of 12 year old Rebecca Sedgwick found out about the on line bullying of her daughter, she responded by taking away Rebecca’s cell phone and shutting down her Facebook page.   Eventually, after switching schools and seeming to feel better, Rebecca got her phone back.   And her mother had no clue that anything was amiss.   She even speculated after her daughter’s death that maybe Rebecca didn’t let on that anything was wrong because she didn’t want her cell phone taken away again.

I am in no way blaming Rebecca’s mother for her death.   I believe that there were many issues at play, cyber-bullying being but one of them.  But this tragedy does speak to a couple of issues regarding kids’ on line activity and parents seeming inability to deal with it.

First, why punish your child for being bullied?  I’m sure that Rebecca’s mom thought she was protecting her daughter, but from Rebecca’s point of view, she was the one who wound up with no internet access and no social media; not those doing the bullying.   Second, it seems to me that the answer to all of this is not spying, but communicating.   Why are parents so reluctant to engage in substantive discourse with their kids?   Instead they preach and dictate and wonder why their children don’t listen.   Would you?

The conversation should start when the kids are young.   Before they want a Facebook page, an Instagram account or are tempted to dive into the melee that is or other similar sites.   Talk to your kids about your concerns.   In my experience parents often fail to do this; they either assume the kid already knows or conversely that they won’t understand.   As a result the rules laid out appear arbitrary or part of a parental power trip.  (And if you can’t come up with a better reason for a rule than ‘because I said so’, then it might be a good idea to re-think it.)

Public school teachers respond to my call for better communication between parents and children by saying it is inherently flawed due to the number of parents who have no interest in communicating with their kids.  And they have a point, so I will amend.  Ideally communication is established early between parent and child and that’s how trust is built.   However, it can also be any other adult in a place of respect in a child’s life.  Notice I said “respect” and not “authority”.  Perhaps there is another relative, or family friend, or pastor or teacher with whom the child has a good relationship who can take on the role of mentor & guide in this regard.

You will not ever gain a person’s trust, no matter their age, by spying on them.   The only way to build trust is by trusting.  You must pave a path of open communication and then be the example.   You want your kids to trust you?  Trust them first and be trustworthy. Know that mistakes will be made but that if there is no fear of retribution (meaning the kid doesn’t fear your wrath which might include confiscation of their computer or phone) a child is far more likely to come forward and admit their mistakes or discuss their problems.

My kids are still relatively young at age 13 and 9, so I am speaking from the point of view of someone in the process.  So far, so good.  I don’t monitor their on line activity and I know they are  aware of the types of negative things that can go on in social media sites.   In fact, I’ve talked with them about both articles to which I linked above, and asked their opinions.  They know that I trust them and also that trust, once broken, is very hard to regain.

Trust is a two way street and I know that spying – monitoring – is a sure way to destroy it.

I’ll take my chances with communication, every time.




4 comments on “Monitoring = Spying and can never build trust

  1. Nancy Cauthen says:

    Hi Amy, I am new to homeschooling and a relatively new reader of your blog. I have already learned a lot and want to thank you for being a such helpful resource! I read this post with interest as I installed computer monitoring software on my sons’ computers just last week. I did so because we began homeschooling our 16-year-old this fall and to keep him on track, I wanted him to know I had the ability to monitor his online activities. So far, the results have been quite positive.

    I want to challenge your assertion that monitoring equals spying and inevitably destroys trust. Spying is monitoring that’s being done secretly. I, however, am monitoring my son’s computer usage with his full knowledge that I am doing so. I am not spying on him!

    A little background… My son is extraordinarily introverted and is emotionally exhausted by the amount of social interaction required in a school day. He slogged through K-8 (we’re fortunate to live across the street from a public K-8) and while we knew he was unhappy, we did not understand just how deeply. For high school, we felt we’d found the best match for him given the options in NYC, but after two years of increasing academic struggles and belatedly learning about some ongoing bullying, we decided to try homeschooling out of desperation.

    My son is so grateful we are willing to do this that my normally angry, recalcitrant teen has approached this radical change in his education with a more positive attitude than I expected. Given his age and personality, I don’t think full-blown unschooling would be right for him (or us), at least not now, but I’ve been persuaded by the writings of unschoolers that the key to helping my son reclaim his education – and to enjoy learning – is to build around his interests. So that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a work in progress, but so far, parents and son are cautiously optimistic!

    That said, it’s an enormous challenge for a 16-year-old who has always hated school and who doesn’t have a lot of intrinsic motivation to make the transition to homeschooling. Our approach has been low key, knowing he needs to recover from his negative experiences with school. At the same time, we’re struggling to keep him focused. Like many 16-year-old boys, he has a love affair with online gaming. Unlike many parents, we have placed few restrictions on our children’s online activities. We see benefits from their experiences with multi-player games that other parents forbid or at least greatly restrict. We also began educating our children at an early age about how to safely use the internet. So we have practiced the kind of ongoing communication you recommend.

    But the bottom line is there’s no way my 16-year-old can yet self regulate enough to stay off his games (he has his own computer in his room) during the school schedule we developed together. When it was clear no work was getting done, I told him he couldn’t be on his games during “school hours” and that I was going to install computer monitoring software so I would know if he was violating this rule. I also needed a way to force him off the computer at night to go to bed. He was extremely angry and we had a couple of rather intense arguments. But after trying unsuccessfully to get around the software a few times, he’s accepted the new rules and been more productive, which in turn, has begun to build his self-esteem. He’s always done better with structure – even when he says he doesn’t like it – because he’s a kid who thrives on predictability and routine.

    The result has been improved communication, very little conflict and increasing trust on both sides. In part, I’ve been more understanding when my son can’t focus; I ask him what he thinks he could do and we change the plan for the day. I’ve acknowledged, repeatedly, how hard it is to learn how to manage more freedom and independence, giving him examples from my own experiences. But I’ve also assured him not only that he will learn but how rewarding it can be; and I think he’s beginning to experience the rewards of self-imposed structure.

    Although we’re early on in this venture, so far monitoring has been good because it’s helped reduce temptation and distraction, and it’s been paired with extensive communication. This is not spying!

    • Amy says:

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you so much for the comment! (and for reading my blog.) In anything that I write, there is always the caveat that each family should do what works for them. You know your child and situation better than anyone. From what you said it sounds like you have very open communication with your son, which is the most important thing. It is the arbitrary introduction of rules and surveillance – “until you prove you are trustworthy” with which I so strongly disagree.

      Thank you for presenting an alternate viewpoint. I truly appreciate it.


  2. Nancy Cauthen says:

    Hi Amy, thanks so much for your response! I absolutely agree with your concern about “the arbitrary introduction of rules and surveillance ‘until you prove you are trustworthy'” as a parental approach. At the same time, I have great sympathy for parents who go that route after discovering that their children have been subjected to intense bullying. I’m not saying I think it’s the right approach — just that I understand the impulse. It is so very, very difficult to be a good parent in a complicated world….

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