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Spyware apps for parenting teens--helpful or not?

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This blog is written by a therapist in midtown Sacramento and focuses on the concerns and struggles of highly sensitive people (HSPs) and of kids, teens and adults struggling with depression, anxiety or just trying to figure out what they want for themselves.  There's help and hope through counseling and therapy!

Spyware apps for parenting teens--helpful or not?

Ivy Griffin

Recently, I learned about a smartphone app that left me confused and shaking my head in wonderment. By the way, anyone else here feel like there’s some NEW app or online program or device to worry about Every. Single. Day? Uh huh, me too. No wonder so many parents and families and schools are trying to sort out how to educate and protect kids in this millennium!
 
Back to the app. It’s a tracker app, which, at first, didn’t sound too bad to me. I know plenty of these exist, and I get the appeal for parents—you can know where your kid is and make sure they’re safe. Pretty understandable. Then, I learned that this spyware app does more. Not only does it track where someone goes, what time they were there and who they were texting or calling, it even takes screen shots of text messages, online activity and posts, and creates a daily summary. And, here’s the shocker—it can be installed without someone knowing it’s there. It’s invisible.
 
Does that make you squirm? It did me. My heart also sunk. A secret app that takes screen shots of text messages and digital activity? That’s some serious spying and invasion of privacy. Yikes!
 
Yet, when it comes to parenting, another part of me gets it. Sure, you worry about your kid’s online footprint and what they may be posting. Or, maybe you really don’t like her/his group of friends, and don’t trust your teen to make safe choices with them, so you monitor their text messages to see if they’re with them. There can be a dozen, if not a million, reasons why a parent could gravitate toward an app like this.
               
On the flip side, I was curious what some teens thought of an app like this. Most of them had the same reaction: head shakes, frowns, disgust, and frustration. Interestingly, they understood the tracker part. One teen even said he’d be willing to install a tracker app on his own phone to reassure his parents he wasn’t anywhere he wasn’t supposed to be, so they could trust him on making good choices. Wow! I was impressed.
 
The part most teens struggled with was the detailed tracking of online activity and messaging. As I considered this app more, I thought about how the developmental basis of adolescence is for teens to form their own identities, which can mean feeling very big, powerful feelings; asserting their independence; learning about their sexuality; forming opinions and beliefs that differ from their parents and so on. Throughout this process, teens can need their own space to explore their identities with autonomy. So, what happens if parents don’t give teens that space? Teens learn to hide who they are, and that’s never good.  
 
Also, because teens are busy pulling away from their families while getting closer to their friends, arguments and disagreements are bound to happen, as we know. So, teens talking, texting, snapping (or whatever new tech-based verb comes along) to connect with friends can be a healthy way for them to work through their big emotions and get the support they need. And, venting is all about getting everything out, which can include saying things we don’t mean. In fact, I think we all had something to say about our parents when we were teens, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Maybe it’s best to let some things go unheard.
 
Being a parent is tough, stressful, demanding—but, if you’re considering a spyware app, I encourage you to think about whether you really want to see what your kid’s googling? I know, I wouldn’t. Teen years are confused enough. Of course, teens are going to Google or post or text some odd, gross, funny, weird stuff. They need that space to be a teen. And, that space to make mistakes. Send a stupid text or video. The chance to post something that might not be good, so they can learn from it!
 
We are, as a society, in a very confusing time, especially around privacy and how far extends. But spyware apps on your kid’s phone? Is it necessary? Or, is it parental anxiety making this decision? If you’ve ever considered putting this kind of spyware on your teen’s phone, think about how you would have felt as a teen if this option had existed. (And, then, maybe take a breath if you start worrying even more about what your teen is up to. Remember, you survived AND I bet you learned some life lessons in the process of that adolescent exploration you were up to.)
               
My advice? Jeopardizing your relationship with your kid is not the answer. What would happen if they found out you had been spying on them? They would feel violated, ashamed, angry, hurt and betrayed. Trust goes both ways. If your teen knows you trust them, that you respect their boundaries, and even encourage them to have healthy boundaries—you don’t need a spyware app.
               
If, however, trust has been violated or you really think you need to install a tracking app—talk to your teen first! Even if you just want to install a basic “Find my Phone” app. Show them you are willing to trust them, and if you continue to experience any more anxiety or stress about NOT being able to track or see what your teen is doing—talk to other parents, friends, family, or your therapist (or reach out to a therapist). You’re not alone in having these concerns. Most parents I meet have them. They worry a lot about what their child is doing online. Instead of getting caught up in policing what your teen is doing online, focus on being their parent. A parent that respects their boundaries. And most of all, trust them, so that they can trust you. Be the parent they can go to when they make mistakes, not a parent they run from when they do.
 
By Arielle Grossman

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