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Ann Brenoff


How I Spy On My Kids Online

Posted: 03/22/2013 11:02 am

I want a "Scared Straight" program for kids who, like my son, think they are immune to the landmines of the online world. I want someone to grab him by his shoulders and scream him into reality, the way those terrifying prison-lifers did to troubled kids in the 1978 award-winning documentary.

The "Scared Straight" film birthed a slew of community programs, supported by frustrated parents, educators and police who had all tried and failed to get through to at-risk kids. The underlying message of "Scared Straight" was clear: Do you want to wind up like this scary prison guy? No? Then stop what you are doing, now.

Yes, I know the programs didn't actually work. There was no science behind them, just a smart film-maker. I don't actually care. I'm weary of being the only one screaming at my son and would like to turn over the job to someone else.

My son, a 6th grader, has a real affinity for screens. He loves online gaming, texting, social media sites. He's not alone. Chelsea Clinton and James P. Steyer -- founder and CEO of Common Sense Media and the author of "Talking Back to Facebook" -- reported that "by the time they're two years old, more than 90 percent of all American children have an online history." They wrote for that at age five, "more than 50 percent [of children] regularly interact with a computer or tablet device, and by 7 or 8, many kids regularly play video games. Teenagers text an average of 3,400 times a month."

I've seen middle school kids spend all day gaming, texting, posting photos of their shoes to Instagram and then commenting online how cool they are -- all the while sitting three feet from each other. At some level, it's harmless fun -- just the new toy that this generation plays with. Except for when it's not.

And that's why I'm screaming. My son was playing Clash of Clans-- an iPad/iPhone "epic combat strategy game" app -- with some friends from school when a new online player joined them. She told my son she was 12, just like him, and her name was Veronica. She asked if they could move the chat conversation offline and sent him a phone number he believed was hers.

He knew better. He's been warned about playing games with online strangers. Yet he called the number anyway -- an act that has cost him his iPhone and more importantly, my trust.

In the few days that he and "Veronica" exchanged texts and phone chats, my son learned very little about her. He would ask; she just would never say. He thought it was curious that she "didn't know" what time zone she lived in, because she was 12 after all, and don't all 12-year-olds know that? She also wouldn't say where she lived or went to school, but asked him a lot about his school and where he shopped for clothes and stuff. He wisely came to me when she suggested he use, an iPhone app that makes your texts disappear before your mother can read them. I can't credit her with turning him on to, an app that makes your photos disappear; he discovered that gem on his own. Wickr too; Wickr's trademarked tagline is "leave no trace" and what it does is erase things you might not want others to see. "The Internet is forever. Your private communications don't need to be," says its website.

All of these apps, by the way, have legitimate purposes in the hands of adults. I just don't see a whole lot of concern on the part of their marketers to keep them away from kids who use them to conceal their online activities.

"Veronica" did get my son to delete all records of their cell calls and the voice messages she left too; I was able to retrieve those from the deleted folder and hear her voice and capture her number. But the phone number she gave him, well she's either a 44-year-old woman who walks dogs in Oakland or its a number created by an app like, which disguises the number that appears on your incoming cell calls. Yeah, that exists too.

We are still assessing how serious an identity breach my son's dalliance with an online stranger may have caused. It may be nothing. Or it may be that we should close all our credit card accounts, change the passwords for every online site we visit, stop all our online commerce. The point is, we just don't know.

As for "Veronica," she is long gone. Since I texted her from my son's phone -- addressing her by what I believe is her real name -- she has left my kid alone and I suspect has moved on to someone else's.

I remain stunned by the incident and feel about as helpless as I ever have as a parent. I work in the online world and know that banning screens from my son's life isn't a realistic option. The goal is to keep him safe and help him develop better judgement and the ability to moderate both his time and the places he visits online. Right now, it's all one big fun house for him.

I recently read a quote from a mom who said she feels like she's losing the war over her kids' online activities; I understood completely. Staying ahead of my son in this battle for his online safety has turned me into someone I never thought I would become: a mother who spies on her child. I don't come naturally to the role, but accept it as the only path available to me at the moment. And I'm fighting apps with apps. Here are some weapons in my aresenal:

We are an iPhone family, but I like the idea behind TxtWatcher -- a text monitoring app for Android mobile phones. It now includes a mapping feature that alerts parents not only to their child's texting behaviors -- it flags cyber-bullying and sexting language and alcohol and drug use references -- but now also tells you the location of a child's phone when it sends or receives text messages. You can tell on a map if your kid is "in motion" -- texting while driving.

* can block a device's functionality. You can turn off apps and website access and even limit the hours that the phone can be used. You have to read through all the messages and activity log. MyMobileWatchdog says it has been the "leading Parental Control Mobile App since 2006." It has location tracking and delivers a mobile activity log to your email every day showing you, among other things, all new contacts your kid has made. I suspect that clever kids like mine would quickly figure out that borrowing a friend's phone or tablet is an easy way to skirt MyMobileWatchdog, but by using it, I can at least get a full picture of everywhere he goes, who he connects with, etc.

* MyMobileSpy
This app allows for broad monitoring, including text messages, calls, GPS location, website visitation history, photos taken. Again, no alerts to anything flagged as inappropriate. MyMobileSpy means you are basically shadowing your child online.

The real downside is that with most of these spying apps, a parent can spend all day following a kid around online. You'll know what he's been up to, but what do you do with that information? How does knowing what a kid's online activity was convince that kid to make smarter choices?

Which gets me back to Scared Straight and the prison lifers.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • March 2013: Teens and Technology

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: "Fully 95% of teens are online, a percentage that has been consistent since 2006. Yet, the nature of teens’ internet use has transformed dramatically during that time ... Teens are just as likely to have a cell phone as they are to have a desktop or laptop computer. And increasingly these phones are affording teens always-on, mobile access to the internet — in some cases, serving as their primary point of access."

  • February 2013: Preschoolers Can Learn Great Things From TV

    <strong>Source</strong>: Huffington Post (to read the actual study, visit <a href="">Pediatrics</a> -- subscription required) <strong>Gist</strong>: "New research out today by Dr Christakis finds that putting our time and energy into working to improve what our children watch, not just how much they watch, can have a positive impact on their behavior -- even for children as young as 3 years of age."

  • February 2013: Media and Violence: An Analysis of Current Research

    <strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "While longitudinal research does allow us to speak in terms of a 'causal' relationship, it is probably more accurate and useful to think about media violence as a 'risk factor' rather than a 'cause' of violence — one variable among many that increases the risk of violent behavior among some children."

  • January 2013: Screen Time Not Linked To Kids' Physical Activity

    <strong>Source</strong>: Reuters (to read the actual study, visit <a href="">JAMA Pediatrics</a> -- log-in required) <strong>Gist</strong>: "[R]esearchers said the new study backs up earlier findings showing too much screen time and not enough exercise may be separate issues that parents and schools need to address independently."

  • December 2012: How Families Interact on Facebook

    <strong>Source</strong>: Facebook <strong>Gist</strong>: "We investigated anonymized and automatically processed posts and comments by people self-identified as parents and children to understand how conversation patterns with each other might be a bit different from those with their other friends."

  • November 2012: Parents, Teens, and Online Privacy

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: "Most parents of teenagers are concerned about what their teenage children do online and how their behavior could be monitored by others. Some parents are taking steps to observe, discuss, and check up on their children’s digital footprints."

  • November 2012: Public Supports Expanded Internet Safety Requirements to Protect Kids

    <strong>Source</strong>: C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health <strong>Gist</strong>: "In this Poll, nearly two out of three adults expressed strong support for proposed COPPA updates, including requiring apps designed for kids to confirm that users are at least 13 and prohibiting apps from collecting personal information from users under age 13."

  • November 2012: The Online Generation Gap

    <strong>Source</strong>: Family Online Safety Institute <strong>Gist</strong>: "These surveys indicate that teens’ concerns about their online safety parallel parents’ concerns more closely than parents realize and that many teens are taking steps to protect their privacy and personal information. Nonetheless, teens suggest that parents are not as informed about what their teens do online as parents think they are, and some teens are taking risks by providing personal information to strangers online."

  • November 2012: Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The View From The Classroom

    <strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "America’s teachers -- whether they are long-time classroom veterans or young, tech-savvy ones, at wealthy schools or low-income schools, public or private, elementary or high school -- surface relatively consistent concerns: Students are having issues with their attention span, writing, and face-to-face communication, and, in the experience of teachers, children’s media use is contributing to the problem. On the plus side, teachers find that young people’s facility with media is helping them find information quickly and multitask more effectively."

  • November 2012: How Teens Do Research in the Digital World

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: "Three-quarters of AP [Advanced Placement] and NWP [National Writing Project] teachers say that the internet and digital search tools have had a 'mostly positive' impact on their students’ research habits, but 87% say these technologies are creating an 'easily distracted generation with short attention spans' and 64% say today’s digital technologies 'do more to distract students than to help them academically.'"

  • June 2012: Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives

    <strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "Three out of four teens have social networking sites, and half of all teens are on their sites on a daily basis. But despite our concerns about social media, in the vast majority of cases, these media do not appear to be causing great tumult in teenagers’ lives."

  • March 2012: Teens, Smartphones and Texting: Texting Volume Is Up While Frequency of Voice Calling Is Down

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: “The volume of texting among teens has risen from 50 texts a day in 2009 to 60 texts for the median teen text user. The frequency of teens' phone chatter with friends - on cell phones and landlines - has fallen. But the heaviest texters are also the heaviest talkers with their friends.”

  • February 2012: Impact of an Active Video Game on Healthy Children’s Physical Activity

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: "There was no evidence that children receiving the active video games were more active in general, or at anytime, than children receiving the inactive video games."

  • November 2011: Teens, Kindness And Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American Teens Navigate the New World of “Digital Citizenship”

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: “As social media use has become pervasive in the lives of American teens, a new study finds that 69% of the teenagers who use social networking sites say their peers are mostly kind to one another on such sites. Still, 88% of these teens say they have witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person on the sites, and 15% report that they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior on social network sites.”

  • November 2011: Preschool-Aged Children’s Television Viewing in Child Care Settings

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: “We found that children in as many as 70% of home-based child care settings and 36% of center-based child care settings watch television daily. More importantly, when television is viewed at all, infants and children spend 2 to 3 hours watching in home-based programs and ~1.5 hours watching in center-based programs.”

  • October 2011: Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: “This updated policy statement provides further evidence that media—both foreground and background—have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years. Thus, the AAP reaffirms its recommendation to discourage media use in this age group. This statement also discourages the use of background television intended for adults when a young child is in the room.”

  • October 2011: Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America

    <strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "Nine-month-olds spend nearly an hour a day watching television or DVDs, 5-year-olds are begging to play with their parents’ iPhones, and 7-year-olds are sitting down in front of a computer several times a week to play games, do homework, or check out how their avatars are doing in their favorite virtual worlds. Television is still as popular as ever, but reading may be beginning to trend downward. Having an accurate understanding of the role of media in children’s lives is essential for all of those concerned about promoting healthy child development: parents, educators, pediatricians, public health advocates, and policymakers, to name just a few."

  • July 2011: Cell Phone Study ‘Misleading’: Children May Still Be At Increased Cancer Risk, Experts Say

    <strong>Source</strong>: The Huffington Post <strong>Gist</strong>: “[E]xperts have some serious concerns regarding the methods and conclusions of the first study evaluating the connection between cell phone radiation and brain cancer in children and teens. Not only was the study flawed, they note, but it was also financially supported by the cell phone industry.”

  • October 2010: Children's Screen Viewing Is Related to Psychological Difficulties Irrespective of Physical Activity

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: “This study found that greater television and computer use was related to greater psychological difficulties, independent of gender, age, level of deprivation, pubertal status, and objectively measured physical activity and sedentary time.”

  • July 2010: Television and Video Game Exposure and the Development of Attention Problems

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: "Viewing television and playing video games each are associated with increased subsequent attention problems in childhood. It seems that a similar association among television, video games, and attention problems exists in late adolescence and early adulthood."

  • April 2010: Teens, Cell Phones and Texting: Text Messaging Becomes Centerpiece Communication

    <strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: “Fully two-thirds of teen texters say they are more likely to use their cell phones to text their friends than talk to them to them by cell phone.”

  • January 2010: Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds

    <strong>Source</strong>: Kaiser Family Foundation <strong>Gist</strong>: “Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.”


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