WebWatcher, a company whose business is enabling parents to spy on their child's online activity, including email, instant messaging and website visits, has today launched a new tool for spying on SMS text messages too. WebWatcher Mobile currently only works on BlackBerry smartphones, but Android, Windows Mobile and iPhone versions are in the works now.
"Cell phones," warns the company, "can be a great way for children to keep in touch with family members," but they can also "serve as facilitators for cyberbullying, sexting and other dangerous behaviors."
That claim may be true to a point, but is reading each and every text message the best way to counteract these behaviors? For that matter, should parents be spying on their kids to this extent at all?
Kids Text, Not Call
WebWatcher cites data from the Pew Research Center that states some 75% of those aged 12-17 now own cell phones, and half of teens send over 50 messages per day. One in three sends more than 100.
(Hope you parents have a lot of free time on your hands, because that remote snooping is going to take you awhile!)
More importantly, the data point that's skipped over when touting spyware like this... err, I mean remote monitoring software... is that teens text instead of calling their friends in many cases. In fact, Pew says than teens are 10 times more likely to text someone than call them.
That means, for many teens, text messages are the primary form of communication among a child's friends.
And parents reading those texts? Well, that would be the equivalent of a parent in days past surreptitiously picking up the extension (you know - the phone attached to the wall with a cable?) in another room to eavesdrop on a child's conversation.
Parental Spyware: For Those Who Can't Handle Tech?
The WebWatcher Mobile product complements the company's standalone suite of monitoring tools, but it's hardly alone here. A whole crop of parental spyware applications have risen up to serve the needs of parents who can't figure out (or can't be bothered, or don't have the time) to understand the modern Web. The PTA-endorsed SocialShield product, for instance, is another recent entry into this field. Like WebWatcher, it works across a number of sites, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Photobucket and others. SafetyWeb does the same. And of course there are the old standbys like Net Nanny, SpectorSoft and CyberPatrol, just to name a few.
Is this level of spying the right way to parent, though? There are alternates of course: Parents could educate their children instead, do spot checks to keep them on their toes, friend them on Facebook and elsewhere across the Web, and keep the computer in a public area of the home.
That said, there are some parents for whom monitoring software may be the right choice: the technologically un-savvy, for example. If the intricacies of Facebook and Twitter are confounding or if you still haven't figured out exactly how to type a text message yourself, you may be a good candidate for remote monitoring software.
A Warning to Parents Behind the Times
But keep in mind that your inability (or refusal?) to keep up with the times in terms of technology while allowing your children to outpace you by leaps and bounds is not only doing you a disservice - it's doing one to your children as well.
Sure, they may know their way around the social Web and cell phones better than you, but they haven't fully developed their interpersonal and social skills in a way that allows them to handle the issues that will inevitably come up.
As a new parent myself, I believe my job is to help my child learn and grow on her path to independence, which includes staying informed on all trends, both tech and otherwise. Parents who can't be bothered to figure out what that "tweet thing" is all about or what "sexting" is should not think this is a badge of honor to wear proudly, as if it makes them more mature somehow. It should be a signal that the world has surged ahead and they've been left behind in its wake.
And please, let's not make this a socio-economic issue, either. If you can't afford a computer or cell phone, then neither can your child. However, he or she may have access to them at friends' houses or at school. You have have access to them via your public library. Many public libraries offer free computer classes, too. You and your child could even take one together. Let your lack of technology comprehension guide you to a learning experience that helps you both, instead of being an issue where you child is left unparented because you don't know what you're doing.
Parental spyware, however, should be a last resort at best.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours?
(Image credit: flickr user eirikso)