My sons love their phones. Their faces bask in the soft glow of their screens during all (permitted) hours of the day. Sometimes they giggle, sometimes they look angry, sometimes their rapid typing alerts me to a major crisis. But I don’t actually know what they're talking about, or what it is that they find so hilarious. I wish I did. If we lived in South Korea, however, I would know, because the government says all new smartphones owned by kids under the age of 18 are required to have a monitoring app installed.
These kinds of apps can block calls, alert parents to certain keywords like “bully” or “sex”, send out location data, monitor all activity and even shut down the phone. According to The Associated Press, the South Korean government funded the “Smart Sheriff” application to monitor online pornography use, but it provides a list of options that go far beyond that. Smart Sheriff is just one of 14 available apps that monitor kids’ phone use.
At first, the idea of having 24-7 access to my kids’ phones sounded like a great idea. I could limit their hours on the phone, make sure they aren’t in trouble, find out who they have crushes on and figure out which of their peers they should avoid. I would no longer encounter the grumpy, taciturn stare when I asked questions about their day—I wouldn't have to ask, because I would already know everything! Just thinking about the potential power makes me giddy.
Even though I would like to know everything my kids say and do, I also believe it’s not right to spy on your kids. Phone Sheriff (a similar app marketed to nervous North American parents) bills itself as the next generation of parental control software, claiming its product is not spyware because “it notifies the user they are being monitored.”
That’s splitting hairs. And it's not the right way to raise kids in a technology-obsessed society. We're raising future adults and our kids and teens have a right to privacy. As one concerned South Korean expert says, “We are going to raise people who are accustomed to surveillance.” And, as much as I would like to read my kids’ texts to ensure they're OK, I’m not entirely sure that I'm ready to actually see what they have to say. It's their private space to try out behaviours, make mistakes and joke around. Just as I wouldn’t have wanted my mother listening in on the other phone extension when I was in high school.
If you have a small child whose only access to a phone is your password-protected smartphone, it’s easy to assume that you will always have that much control over them. But when your toddler becomes a 12-year-old, the issue of privacy is much more complicated. But don’t despair, it’s never too early to start building trust and having open conversations about technology.
Devorah Heitner, an expert on raising digital natives, says that spying phone apps cannot take the place of actual experiences. She has some tips on things to consider before you spy on your kids. Reading your kids’ phone will give you a window into their world—but it probably won’t improve your overall relationship, nor will it build trust or teach your kids how to be good digital citizens.
I look at spyware as one of those things that I would like in a fantasy world, but not in reality. My kids are going to make mistakes, online and off. Some of them I will know about, some of them I won’t. But I hope the relationship I've built with my kids will keep the lines of communication open, even when I can’t see exactly what they are communicating.
Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.