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Are You Spying on Your Kid?

Parents might be invading privacy and risking their kids' trust when checking up on kids' texts and emails.

Technology has been a great boon to parenting -- we can now keep in touch with our kids via cell phone when they're out of reach, send a handy text when we we're running late to pick them up, even see photos of them posted on a summer camp website that reassure us they're having a good time. 

But is all the access we have -- thanks to our gadgets and the Web -- helping our kids grow into independent, responsible people? Or are we crossing the line from caring to intruding? Is it about safety ... or snooping? My teen daughter unfriended me when she felt I'd been checking her Facebook page too often, and she changed her handle on Twitter when she didn't want me reading her tweets!

Here are a few guidelines for a common sense approach to tech-assisted parenting that balances safety concerns with kids' privacy and helps foster autonomy and trust while staying connected. 

Be a good "friend" on Facebook
Some parents insist on being their kid's "friend" to make sure no inappropriate language or photos are posted. (A good rule of thumb for adults as well as kids: Don't post anything you wouldn't want your mom to see.)

Parents have a right to keep their kids safe, but it could hurt your relationship if your kids feel you're always "spying" on them. Be discreet, and choose your battles. If you see some posts tipping toward cyberbullying, talk to your kid offline about that to cut it off at the pass. And if you spot kids planning an unauthorized party, it may be time to step in. But try to resist checking constantly and adding your comments to posts by kids who believe they're talking among themselves. It will feel like an intrusion to them and make you look like a dork who needs to get a life.

Don't let PowerSchool overpower you
Online services like PowerSchool and School Loop post grades and assignments as a useful tool for schools and families. But if you're constantly checking it, you may be sending a message that all you care about is grades and putting undue pressure on your young student.

I know of one parent who leaves her son a PowerSchool printout every afternoon when he comes home from school, which makes him feel harassed and discouraged. Keep in mind that a low grade on a computer report doesn't always take into account an authorized extension on a missing assignment or the teacher's failure to record a quiz grade. Always check in with your kid, not just the online report. 

Have some texting boundaries
Texting is the primary mode of communication among tweens and teens. But that doesn't mean you have to be part of the conversation. Of course it depends on the family, but some kids may find parental text chatting intrusive.

Consider using texting mainly for the essentials, such as asking what time your kid will be home or telling him where to meet you. And avoid texting when kids are in class at school, unless it's really urgent. 

Respect the privacy of kids' digital conversations
In another era, girls shared their secrets and deepest feelings in a diary they kept under lock and key, and the fur would fly if parents violated that lock. Today, boys and girls seem to share everything in texts and tweets, which are accessible to parents who know their kid's handle on Twitter or simply by scrolling through the uncleared text messages on their kids' phone. But just because you can do it, should you?

Kids feel those conversation zones are their private domain, where they feel free to be goofy, jokey, and maybe even a bit snarkier or cooler than they are in their interactions at school. Talk to your kids about responsible use of texting (no sexting!), Twitter, and Facebook. You may want to check occasionally. But unless you feel your kids are at risk or you notice some changes in behavior that are red flags that something's wrong, try to resist obsessively reading the things they're confiding in friends. If you do, it could hurt the trust you've established in your relationship -- which, on balance, may make snooping not worth it.

Maybe you don't need to track their every move
There are phone apps that use GPS technology to track a person's exact location and movements 24 hours a day. A bunch of these apps turned up on the market around Halloween and seemed helpful for parents contemplating having their kids wander around city streets after dark. But do we really need to check on our kids every second of every day, especially when we can usually reach them by cell phone?

How about agreeing on a place your kid is allowed to go and arranging a time for returning home, then congratulating him or her for sticking to the plan? That will build more trust and independence than tracking your kid like an FBI agent.

A picture is not worth a thousand words
When my daughter went to summer camp, we got to log on to an online service that posted daily photos of the campers. It was fun seeing her romping in the surf, hanging out with her cabin mates, biking on a field trip, etc. And the photos made a nice keepsake. But there was something about the arrangement that felt a tiny bit like spying. From 500 miles away, I had a window into what she thought was her private experience away from home.

Seeing those photos online was no match for the letter she sent us from camp telling us about all she'd done and the new friends she'd made, or the stories that bubbled out of her when she came home. Don't let technology's easy access be a substitute for learning about the experience straight from your own kid. 

Regan McMahon
Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than 20 years. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on deadline in 48 hours. Regan is also a published author whose book Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports grew out of her experience keeping up with two athletic kids. She earned a B.A., teaching credential, and master's degree in the teaching of French at the University of California at Berkeley -- reflecting a passion she's had for all things French since reading Eloise in Paris as a child.