Article at a Glance

  • Protect your kids by learning more about which apps and services they use and establishing family rules about online behavior.
  • There are many apps and software options that can help you monitor your children online.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed. Start early and take it one step at a time.

Parents are used to worrying about their kids when they’re out with their friends, but often don’t realize that their kids might be just as vulnerable while sitting in their bedroom with a smart phone.

According to a report by the security software company McAfee, there is a big discrepancy between what parents think their kids are doing online and what their kids are actually doing online.

Some of the statistics are enough to make you think twice.

  • 75 percent of parents believe they can find out everything their kids do online, but 70 percent of kids ages 10-12 have taken steps to hide their online behavior from their parents.
  • 50 percent of parents believe that their teens tell them everything they do online. But two out of three teens believe that their parents don’t need to know everything they do online.
  • About 50 percent of teens said they would change their behavior online if their parents were watching.
  • Parents believe their children spend two hours a day online, whereas teens actually spend five hours a day.
  • 44.8 percent of teens have visited a website that their parent would disprove of, but only 23.6 percent of parents know this.
  • 36 percent of teens have intentionally looked for sexual topics online, but only 15 percent of parents say that they are aware of this.
  • 32 percent of teens have looked for pornography online, but only 12 percent of parents think their teens look at pornography online.

The report also found that many teens go online to bully, cheat in school, and engage in illegal behavior, but most of the parents were unaware of their behavior.

Even if your kids aren’t lying about their behavior or engaging in inappropriate activities online, they might not understand some of the dangers. Children also don’t always tell their parents when they have been victims of cyber bullying or when something disturbing has happened to them online. It is so important for parents to “trust but verify” when it comes to their kids’ online behavior.

But with kids so adept at finding new ways around online barriers, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. The important part is to not give up—take it a little at a time and start early.

The First Steps to Monitoring Your Child’s Online Activity

Know Which Online Tools Your Child Uses
Do your best to know which new services and apps are grabbing your children’s attention. The best way to get this information is to talk to your children. Ask them about which apps they like. Find out why they prefer one app over another.

If your children ask you to download an app, or if you notice a new app on their devices, ask about its features. Ask your children how they use the service and have them give you a tour. As you listen to your child, you will learn enough to know whether your child’s behavior with the app is probably safe or whether you should do further research. At the end of the discussion you won’t know everything, but you will know what is important to your child. As an added bonus, your children will know that they can discuss their online interests with you.

If you notice a new app and your child won’t discuss it with you, do a little research. You can generally find descriptions and user reviews of apps on the developer’s app download page. User reviews can show you who else is using the app. If reviewers all seem to be adults engaging in questionable activities, then you know that the app is probably not a good fit for your 12-year-old.

For example, the popular free texting app Kik Messenger might seem innocent enough at first, but when you do a little research online you’ll find out that it is used extensively for activities like sexting. Kids who use it often receive inappropriate messages from pedophiles or other teens.

Become A Little Tech-Savvy
It may be impossible to keep up with all the new trends and services, but you can learn a little about the structure of the web and how your devices interact with it. This will help you identify where some of the dangers lie.

For example, some text monitoring software focuses on monitoring the app and others monitor the code of the actual text messages. If you are using software that only monitors the app, all your child has to do to get around the software is to download a new text message app that is not covered by the software.

Some social networking sites also allow chats or instant messaging within the site, making it more difficult for you to be aware of all of your child’s messaging activities.

Establish House Rules
Letting your children know that you are monitoring their behavior is actually a good thing. Sometimes knowing that you are aware of what they are doing can be enough of a deterrent. It also lets kids know that there are boundaries and opens up a dialogue about acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Just as you would with off-line behavior, talk with your children about what online behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate for their age group. Discuss with your children why certain online behaviors are dangerous. Talk about consequences for inappropriate online behavior. You can also include some positive consequences for appropriate online behavior.

Start early and revisit the topic as your children mature and their online usage changes. Gradually teach them the skills that they need to learn to navigate online safely so that they can do it when they are on their own.

Use Technology to Help!
Technology has made your job harder, but it can also make it easier. There are several applications and software programs out there that can help you monitor your child’s behavior. Prices can range from free to expensive, but a higher price doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best choice. You will need to compare the different features of each to determine which is best for you. Keep in mind that no monitoring software covers every possible way your child can interact online. In addition, the software is only as good as your willingness to learn how to use it — and to choose passwords your kids won’t guess!

You can also use account settings on services and software you likely already own. For example, iTunes, Mac, and PC all have parental controls that can help you restrict downloads and access to certain content and applications.

How Kids Cover Their Tracks

The simplest way for children to hide their online searches is to delete the web browser history. Most monitoring software creates its own record of visited websites, making it harder for kids to cover their tracks. However, not all monitoring software tracks every web browser, and new web browsers are created from time to time. You should be aware of the browser(s) your child uses and whether your monitoring software tracks its activity.

Kids may also hide their activity by using social networking sites their parents don’t know about. When a social network site becomes more popular with adults, kids have a tendency to move onto something else. As more adults have started to use Facebook and Twitter, many teens are moving to sites like Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat. Sites like YouTube, Google+ and Pinterest are ones that you will also want to monitor.

Some kids will also avoid detection by using different text messaging applications that you might not know to check or monitor. And even if your children only have an iPod Touch or iPad, these applications can allow them to send texts and photos to other people.

Kids also use privacy settings to their advantage. Parents may feel comfortable with their child’s social networking presence because the parents are online “friends” of the child. But you should be aware that most of these sites allow the account owner to determine who does and does not see posts. It is easy for children to post things without their parents seeing it.

Kids also assume that you won’t check their phone, so they frequently use their phones to hide online behavior they don’t want you to see. Monitoring software is catching up to this, and some apps have started to monitor smart phone use along with household computers. While software is great, it is not smarter than you. If you have not physically looked at your child’s phone lately, why not take the opportunity right now to see what’s on there?

Where to Find More Information

Each device can be so different and there are so many apps and websites out there that it can get pretty overwhelming. To help, we have assembled a list of sites that can help you get started.

How to Monitor Your Child on Facebook: Options on how to monitor your child’s activity on Facebook.

Set Parental Controls for XBox and XBox 360:
Learn how to manage access to games, movies and television content on the console itself and access to Xbox LIVE. Control which games can be played and which TV shows and movies can be watched. You can also control how long your children can use the console daily or weekly.

How to Set Up Parental Controls On Your iPhone: You are not the first parent to give your phone to a child for the purpose of amusing them, nor are you the first parent to get frustrated when you get it back, only to find your apps rearranged and deleted — and perhaps some interesting new purchases added, too. Here’s how to regain control over your phone.

Android Parental Control: Three perfect ways to protect your child.

How to Make Android Child-Friendly: Apps and tweaks to improve Android’s parental controls.

How to Set Up Parental Controls on Wii U
Nintendo offers some of the most comprehensive parental controls available and their handheld game devices have limited Internet access, which means your children can play online with their friends but can’t access inappropriate content like they could on a smartphone or tablet.

Parental Control & Monitoring Reviews:
PC Magazine gives up-to-date coverage and product reviews of Parental Control & Monitoring

Best free parental control software: 9 programs to keep your kids safe: Block access to sites and programs, record keystrokes, get email alerts and more.

Configuring Parental Controls for Apple’s OS X Mountain Lion: Apple’s Parental Controls can help you limit where your child can go online, what applications they use, and what times they are allowed to use the computer. It can also allow you to simplify the interface for less experienced users.

Windows Parental Controls: Parental Controls helps you limit how much computer time children have, as well as which programs and games they can use. is a great site that offers articles, tips, guidance and reviews for parents who want to keep their families safe online.

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Monitoring Online Behavior: Do You Really Know What Your Kids are Doing Online?

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