Is It All Right to Snoop on Your Child Online?

Survey: 10 percent of parents secretly log in to kid's Facebook account.

October 19, 2010, 5:22 PM

Oct. 20, 2010— -- Teens take note: Even if you don't give your parents your Facebook passwords, they may still sneak in.

According to a survey released by the Internet privacy company TRUSTe, 10 percent of parents admitted they secretly logged in to their kids' Facebook accounts.

Out of the 1,000 parents included in the survey, 72 percent said they monitored their kids' activity online. Eighty-five percent said they checked out their kids' Facebook pages at least once a week.

Fran Maier, president of TRUSTe, said the survey shows that parents are trying to find a happy medium between protecting their kids and trusting them to develop their own relationships online.

"There's a fine balance between spying and friending," she said. "It's something that parents have to think carefully about."

While one in ten parents may sign in to their kids' accounts in secret, 86 percent say they are friends with their children on Facebook and 40 percent said their kids have granted them access to their account.

But if kids aren't forthcoming about their online activities, how far can parents go to find out?

Monica Vila, founder and chief technology mom of the parenting website The Online Mom, said she frequently encounters the hot-button topic when she talks to parents around the country.

And that 10 percent figure? She said that, anecdotally at least, it sounds low to her.

"It's one of those issues that really divides parents," she said. "Can you trust your kids until proven otherwise, trust but verify, or just totally not trust? It's a little bit [of an] in-the-gut kind of issue."

And she said it doesn't just apply to a kid's Facebook page, but to e-mail accounts, text messages and other Internet-based communication too.

For parents thinking about some online sleuthing, Vila said to start with why they're considering it in the first place.

"If you're in anticipation mode, nothing's really happened to worry you necessarily… I really strongly advocate for the trust conversation," she said.

'Trust but Verify: Monitoring Your Kids Online

Talk to your child about the basic risks and rules that accompany online activities, she said, and tell her that though she has 100 percent of her parents' trust, once lost, it will be a long road back.

But if you've learned that your child has been involved with inappropriate content, contact or conduct, or your child has become more irritable or withdrawn, she said you might want to consider the "trust but verify" approach.

"Sit down with your child and say, 'My number-one job is to protect you, and there are great things going on online and there are some godawful things going online. In that vein, I have the tools in place on your computer to monitor both your conduct and any contact that may occur that I may need to step in,'" she said. "It's not unlike you in the playground. 'I'll be watching. I may not be next to you holding on to the monkey bars but I'm watching.'"

If your children know that you have the capability to check their online behavior (through software that monitors browsing history and e-mails, alerts parents to messages sent and received and others), she said parents can occasionally monitor without breaking the trust relationship with their child.

But she said much of it depends on the child's age and development.

For 13-year-olds just creating a Facebook page for the first time, she recommends setting up the account so that friend notifications and requests come to the parent's e-mail inbox and not the child's.

Over time, she said, as children prove to their parents that they can make good online decisions, they can earn the privilege to have notifications come directly to them. As they get older and demonstrate more maturity, parents can pass over more online control to their kids, Vila said.

Another suggestion is to ask kids to share with their parents a document with all of their online passwords as a safety net.

"If you get a new car, I'm going to have a set of keys. It's almost as basic as that," she said.

But how much parents use the passwords depends on their agreements with their children. After looking at the "whole child" – their age, maturity, track record online and more – Vila said parents can decide when to let their kids swim on their own.

Children's Media Expert: Watching Your Kids on Facebook

Always, however, she said that parents should careful to not overstep.

"You can overdo it and then you will lose a bond that is going to come in handy forever: trust," she said. "You've got to protect your child, but you also want to build that bond at the same time. It's a balance and it's critical to think of both – am I protecting or am I controlling?"

Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, said that while parents should talk to their kids about being friends on Facebook and should be aware of what they're posting online, how parents monitor their kids' Facebook accounts is hardly a black and white issue.

"It's highly individualized, based on the maturity and circumstances of the child," she said.

Still, she said that while parents educate their kids about the long-term risks of short-term Internet activities, they should also give their teens the space to explore their identity online.

"I would encourage parents to give their kids breathing room. It's a beautiful thing. Kids need it," she said.

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