Playing Sherlock in the digital age: The right way to monitor your child's use of technology

Many parents snoop on their child's gadget activity given the real dangers of technology, but how do they get it right?
Playing Sherlock in the digital age: The right way to monitor your child's use of technology
Playing Sherlock in the digital age: The right way to monitor your child's use of technology
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23-year-old Sharda* was in class 10 when she first suspected that her mother was snooping on her text messages. So, she put a code on her phone one day and when she returned from school, her mother, highly affronted at the time, asked: “Why would you lock your phone, don’t you trust me?”

The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Sharda. However, seeing she didn’t really have a response to the “But I’m your mother!” argument, she ended up removing the security code from her phone but not before she emptied out her inbox. She didn’t hold it against her mother at the time, because many of her friends had told her about their parents doing similar things. “But it was a sure shot way to ensure I didn’t trust her again,” Sharda says.

Sharda was dating a classmate back then and her mother’s reaction made her wary of ever discussing her romantic relationships with her. She ended up shutting her mother out of her personal life. 

Sharda's story isn’t a rare narrative across Indian households.

On the one hand are the kids, born in an era of technology and attuned to figuring it out much faster than their adult counterparts. On the other hand are parents: understandably wary of the distraction gadgets can cause, the real dangers of cyber-stalking, bullying and access to a whole lot of age inappropriate information.

But how much restriction is too much restriction? 

Chennai-based Rajshri’s* eldest child, Preeti*, objects to the time restriction on using her mother's phone to see her school WhatsApp group. However, the restriction came after Rajshri saw a message containing nude pictures in the group. 

With her younger children aged 9 and 4, controlling access is easier, Rajshri says. While Rajshri and her husband installed an app on the iPad to block age-inappropriate pop-ups, they also ensure that the kids ask for permission before downloading games so that they can see if it’s too violent or graphic for their age.

Vandhana, a clinical psychologist, lists three main reasons for children using gadgets: boredom or recreation, educational purposes or as a means to escape from reality. 

She also says that before allowing access in the first place, parents must explain to children the pros, cons and dangers.“And you cannot enforce a restriction without explaining or having a dialogue with the child. The only thing that does is ensure that your child does not trust you and encourages him/her to finding without the parents’ knowledge,” Vandana explains.  

24-year-old Saurabh* for instance, went online because he had difficulty negotiating with what was happening around him. Based out of Trichy then, his parents did not restrict his time on the phone or the desktop until his academic performance started dropping in class 9. Then, they took away his phone and also barred him from going out.

Little did they know that Saurabh had figured out how to turn on the Wi-Fi and was going online on his Portable PlayStation. This went on till he was in class 11 when he actually told his parents that his scores weren’t low because he was distracted but because he didn’t study.

“At that time, for us, not being an engineer was unheard of. The pressure began from class 5 to concentrate on my board exams because they would enable me to take the required subjects. I hated the AIEEE, IIT coaching during class 9 and 10. I didn’t have a life outside my room,” he narrates. He finally told his parents that engineering wasn’t for him and things improved after class 11.

Saurabh’s relationship with his parents did not suffer any long term damage. However, he wishes that they had tried to understand his mindset earlier. As a result of his isolation at the time, Saurabh also had difficulty making friends during undergraduation.

“There was a complete disconnect with my batchmates, so the only thing on my mind would be to go back home and achieve my score for the day on video games. When my parents weren’t there, I’d even bunk college and not move from the bed for two days except for bathroom breaks,” he says.

Fortunately, Saurabh was able to wean himself off of the addiction.

Vandhana says parents need to be especially careful with pre-teens and adolescents because they do not take intrusion lightly. “As parents, you have to tell them if you are going to monitor or check their communication online or on the phone. Involve the child in the discussion and explain why you’re laying down a certain rule and then use reinforcement strategies. But never use gadgets and access to the internet as a punishment or reward,” she advises.

36-year-old Hema Parampalli from Bengaluru makes it a point to tell her eight-year-old daughter that while they don’t want to put child-locks on their phones and laptops, there are ways of checking if she accessed something inappropriate. “We want to inculcate trust by telling her that nothing is off-limits, but that she has to learn to moderate if she doesn’t want us to step in,” Hema says.

Venkat Panchagnula, a 42-year-old scientist, on the other hand, believes that having checks is as important as allowing his 12-year-old daughter to be exposed to advantages of social media and online communication. Therefore while she has a separate laptop, she has restricted internet plans and a landline if she wants to speak to friends.

Neither Hema nor Venkat hover around to see what their kids are doing on these gadgets but ensure that the children know their parents are monitoring.

But monitoring alone is not enough. 

26-year-old Jui recalls how her mother’s peeking and surreptitious supervision during her college days made her change the names on her phone to hide who she was speaking to. 

So when her relationship with her boyfriend took an abusive turn, she felt compelled to keep it secret for as long as she could. But when he started threatening her and stalking her, she had to tell her parents. It resulted in them supporting her but also grounding her for a few months – without a phone.  

Negotiating technology and restriction therefore, is also about communication beyond it, says Vandhana. 

“Parents must not intrude or police without knowledge. However, if there behavioural changes and dialogue with the child does not work, then parents can take the liberty to see what may be causing the problem,” she says.

She also advises that parents must acknowledge the child’s feelings if they may not relate to it, and then negotiate the restrictions and boundaries. “For instance, a child is bound to feel left out if everyone around them has a smartphone. It is important for parents to legitimize what the child expresses, before presenting their reasons for disagreement,” she says. 

(*Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

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