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Should you spy on your kids online?

Feb. 24, 2011 at 12:11 PM ET

You want to keep your kids safe online... but should you spy on them? One police chief says yes, and he's turning parents into password-hackers. But parenting expert Amy McCready says there's a better way: Try honesty.

Amy McCready: Do watch your kids online, but don't be sneaky about it

By Amy McCready, Positive Parenting Solutions founder and TODAYMoms contributor

Mahwah, N.J. Police Chief James Batelli started a heated debate when he suggested that parents do whatever is necessary to monitor their kids’ online activity – even if that means installing “spy” software to hack their passwords for Facebook and other online accounts. Chief Batelli sees a lot of scary things in his line of work, and is clearly on the side of protecting kids. 

I couldn’t agree more with Chief Batelli on two of his three points. Yes, the internet is loaded with predators that prey on children. I also agree that parents not only have the right to know what’s going on in their child’s online life, they should absolutely monitor e-mails, websites visited, Facebook and all other forms of social media and online communication.

Where I disagree with the chief is HOW parents should monitor their child’s online life.

I’m sure you don’t hide in the bushes outside your daughter’s school and peer into the windows to see what she’s doing in the hallway, or tail your teen as he drives away from the house. Installing spying software is akin to setting up surveillance outside the school or following him on a date.

A better way: Have the conversation UP FRONT about the dangers of the online world and how you plan to monitor their online activity.

RELATED: Do you have questions about kids' online safety? Ask TODAY. Click here to submit your questions, and they may be answered by a panel of experts live on TODAY.

That conversation begins with acknowledging that a child’s access to a computer and the Internet and social media is a privilege - not a right. Your kids may disagree with that premise and even suggest that they MUST have Internet access at home for homework.  Indeed, kids often have homework that requires a computer; however, be sure to remind them that the public library has rows and rows of computers with Internet access that they can use. 

Again, access to a computer and the Internet at home is a privilege and a convenience – not a RIGHT.

With that said, be very clear about the responsibilities that accompany those privileges. In addition to spelling out when and how often they can use the computer and Internet, reveal in advance that full disclosure of all accounts and passwords is a requirement. Let them know that you'll be checking all of the accounts periodically. 

And of course – presentation is everything. Assure your kids that you’re not monitoring their activity because you don’t trust them. Rather, it’s your job as their parent to help keep them safe and be on the lookout for online dangers that they may not even recognize.

Problems arise when parents don’t reveal in advance that they will be monitoring their kids’ online activity, and then it feels like an invasion of privacy to the child.

If your kids resist providing passwords, then you have the right to restrict access to the computer and Internet in your home. It’s just like when they sign a school release form that says they’ll adhere to the rules regarding Internet use at school. If they violate those rules, they lose their Internet privileges. It’s the same principle at home.

Parenting in today’s high-tech world can be challenging and scary. But even the best “spy” software in the world doesn’t replace open communication and clearly defined limits and consequences. 

Parents, what do you think? How do you try to keep your kids safe online? Have your say in the comments.

Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutionsand mom to two boys, ages 12 and 15. Positive Parenting Solutions provides online education for positive discipline know-how and parenting peace. For free training resources, visit  www.PositiveParentingSolutions.com

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