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I'm an active member of Android Enthusiasts Stack Exchange and recently came across this question by a parent, asking for advice on spying on his teenage (I'm assuming) son's texts without getting caught. I suggested a few services which claim to do what he's asking for.

But it made me think. I'm not a parent, but I'm engaged and excited about parenthood in my future.

The first thing that came to my mind is that if I distrusted my teenage son to that extent, I wouldn't let him own a phone in the first place. And if I made the choice to entrust him with a cell phone, I wouldn't want to undermine his trust by discreetly reading his private conversations.

I personally support the ideas of open communication and privacy, and I'm thus against censorship and invasion of that privacy.

I would want my son to see me as a trusting and trustworthy authority - and I feel that reading private communications could disrupt that effort on two fronts:

  • If he finds out that I'm spying on him, I could lose some of his trust .
  • If I find out too much of his personal life, it could affect my judgment and demeanor toward him.

If I suspected my son was into something dangerous or illegal, wouldn't it be best to be open with him and try to be a source of support, rather than an antagonist?

Am I being unrealistic here? Is my pre-parenthood naivete combining with my open-source mindset?

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This is the perfect time to think things like this through. It's far easier to react to situations you've considered in advance than to fly by the seat of your pants. –  Marc Feb 8 at 15:56
    
I tend to agree with you. If you think in terms of "the boiling frog" you can understand the series of small steps that people take where they end up thinkin they need to spy on texts without telling the child. Children can do dangerous unsafe things with a phone, and it does need to be addressed, but as you say there are safer better ways to do that. –  DanBeale Feb 9 at 7:18
    
@Marc That certainly is reassuring. –  dotVezz Feb 10 at 3:15

5 Answers 5

With my children, I find spying on them not really being an issue at all. My children love to talk to me about their life. Children, like most people, seem to love talking about themselves quite often. If there's information about my children I need to know about, and don't, usually the failure is with me.

Developing a healthy relationship with a child doesn't mean trusting them implicitly, but it does mean they should trust you.

I learn far more about my children by spending time with them and listening to them than I think I ever could by spying on them.

With that being said, there are some great security and safety features now available on many cell phones. For example, my location is tracked and my wife has access to that information 24/7 as I do hers. But this isn't due to a lack of trust. It's because we trust each other that we want to share all of our information.

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Your answer's certainly useful and good to read, but I daresay it does not answer the qestion. Consider adding a straight answer at the beginning and then put the "elaborate" part you've written. –  Dariusz Feb 9 at 18:21

Spying is a slippery slope. It's so much easier for me as a parent to spy on my daughter (with things like txts, emails, phone logs, etc) than it would have been for my parents to spy on me. That doesn't make it more right.

I have chosen to never do this. I am quite sure she will make mistakes and stupid choices at some point, we all do, I just hope she makes mostly good choices, and can trust me to help her if she screws up. I imagine if I was to spy she'd just be smart enough to delete her communications, and then she would in turn trust me less when she actually needs help... What is gained by that?

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We really, really want to be able to trust our children, but trust is earned, and some children earn it very slowly, if at all. You say you wouldn't let your son own a phone if you distrusted him. If we didn't let our son do things we didn't trust him with, we'd pretty much have to strap him to his bed all day. Kids need freedom to make mistakes. A parent's job is basically to make sure those mistakes are corrected and don't have permanent consequences.

However, I think secretly spying is a mistake. That's why when my kids have a phone, the monitoring will be overt, and will be part of their contract. Overt monitoring has the following benefits:

  • He has a ready made excuse for avoiding peer pressure. "Don't send me stuff like that. My Dad reads my texts sometimes."
  • He knows when he has earned your trust, because you check up on him less frequently.
  • It encourages them to preemptively explain any problems and how they handled them, which engenders trust. "Dad, in case you saw that picture someone forwarded to me, I deleted it and told the sender it wasn't cool."
  • The previous is a good habit for adults handling private communications, because anything committed to digital form and transmitted is never 100% private. It lasts forever, and it can be forwarded or leaked, or seen by accident when someone borrows your phone when their battery dies. For example, one time a female facebook friend was starting to get a little too intimate in chats, which I promptly stopped, but I also told my wife so the transcript would be impossible to take out of context and use against me.
  • The permanence of consequences put it squarely into the realm of parental responsibility. Something the child says by mouth will be forgotten, and can be dismissed as rumor by anyone not physically present. Something they put in digital form can be repeated ad infinitum and spread widely, and is very difficult to refute. Kids often do not consider the long term consequences, and this is where an adult needs to be involved. Just telling a trusted friend is not enough.

However, this also creates a certain responsibility to be judicious about how you use what you read. Your child needs to feel safe that you will use the monitoring only to keep him and his friends safe, and that what you read will remain confidential. If it's not a safety or long-term-consequences concern, don't make him talk about things you read if he doesn't bring it up. That will be on the parent responsibilities side of our contract.

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+1 for the balance between recognizing that blind trust isn't always practical, but also getting that you secretly watching them teaches that behaviors designed to evade each others' awareness are appropriate. –  Jaydles Mar 10 at 22:11
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This is a great answer. "Spying" is just asking for an erosion of trust. Overt monitoring is about actively being engaged in your child's life. The only thing I'd add is to make sure your response to "mistakes" be respectful & focused on teaching them. –  Shawn C Apr 9 at 0:45

We've never read our daughters' texts. When they first got phones, we went through the bills with them, looking for calls and texts at times they should not have been making calls or texts, teaching them how to use them responsibly.

They're 15 and 19 now, but at no time did we feel like we needed to invade their privacy in such a way. We've always had good, open relationships with them. Spying sounds like a good way to lose a lot of communication in a search for a few mere facts.

Perhaps it helps that I was one of their middle school teachers, so I knew all their other teachers. I knew all the teachers at their elementary school long before we had kids, and I was those those elementary teachers' kids' teacher. Same with high school. We were active in their school from the first day of K, so we know their friends. We know everyone our kids know, and they know everyone we know, at least we did until eldest daughter left for college.

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Honestly, until they are no longer living in your house or are 18 and paying their own bill. Certain actions (sexting) could create a legal matter and if they are under 18, you would sure be involved in it. I think the most important thing is being able to have a relationship to trust your children, unfortunately there are far too many parents that aren't involved with their children enough so this is a problem in some cases. But - If you don't trust your children, why even give them a cell phone to begin with. At least one that's not locked to only call specified numbers in case of an emergency or whatever.

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