Through an app called TeenSafe, parents can view their children’s text messages, call logs, web browsing history, contacts, Instagram, Facebook, and more. But does that mean they should?
That depends on who you ask.
Ameeta Jain, who co-founded TeenSafe, believes her service is the solution to good parenting in the digital age—when cell phones put children at risk of exposure to cyber bullying, pornography, and pedophiles.
“I had no idea what I was doing when I handed them their phones,” said Jain, 46. “My world was so simple back then. It was before Instagram.”
So in 2011 she helped develop TeenSafe, a child monitoring software for mobile and social media. The app allows parents to monitor iPhones, Androids, iPads, and iPod touches.
For $14.95 a month, parents can see, well, everything: sent, received and deleted messages; device location and location history; bookmarks; messages sent through Whatsapp and Kik Messenger; Instagram images, posts, comments and followers; Facebook messages, friends, posts, newsfeed, tagged photos, and photo albums.
One of the few things parents won’t be able to see are images and video sent via text messages. “We don’t want anyone to have access to anything that can be construed as child pornography,” Jain explained.
Since its founding in 2011, the app has grown increasingly popular. One million parents in the United States signed up for it in May alone.
TeenSafe is among a number of parental tracking apps that monitor a child’s activity on smartphones. MamaBear, Life360, Canary, and My Mobile Watchdog, provide similar services.
And parents’ smartphone concerns are warranted.
Nearly three-quarter of teenagers have access to a smartphone, according to a 2015 study from Pew Research Center. In fact, teens primarily use their phones to go online.
Among those teens, 94 percent go online daily, or more often. Twenty-four percent of teenagers say they are online “almost constantly” because they have a smart phone.
Are they posting pictures and statuses that could potentially disenchant college admissions officers and future employers?
“It’s a way of judging character and integrity,” Jain said. “We don’t want childhood mistakes to be a permanent thing.”
Knowing that one’s parent is watching can deter a teenager from posting scandalous photos and vulgar messages.
But the app also underscores the nuances of parenting in the digital age. How much monitoring is too much? How to protect one’s children without breaching trust?
It’s a symbiotic relationship. Although the app exists to ensure that children are using their cell phones responsibly—it works best if parents use monitoring apps responsibly, too.
It may be easy to tell an 11-year-old when they first get a phone, but what if your child is already a 16-year-old teenager?
TeenSafe does not appear as an app on the monitored iPhone. On an Android, an app is installed in the background. But the app does not appear on the Android phone’s home screen or app dashboard, nor does the TeenSafe logo appear.
If a parent were to choose to not to tell the teenager, one could potentially get away with it.
But phone monitoring apps can potentially harm parent-child relationships.
Joe Tucci, a psychologist who heads the Australian Childhood Foundation, disapproves of such services. (TeenSafe is used in Australia, as well as New Zealand, Mexico, and Canada.)
“I think it undermines the trust between parents and children,” he said via email. “It promotes snooping by parents rather than open conversation and discussion.”
Teenagers can interpret the installment of the app as an intrusion, or an indication that they are not trusted.
Others argue that the key is space.
A child can still feel trusted if the adult is not checking every single one of their texts, and asking about each one of them.
“I don’t grab a glass of wine every evening and settle in for an entertaining evening of reading my son’s texts and social network updates,” Susan Carraretto wrote on her blog 5 Minutes for Mom. “In fact, since I installed the monitoring software a couple months ago, I have only checked in a couple of times.”
Good Parenting Practices
Anu Parks, a parent who uses TeenSafe, says the app has actually helped improve communication between her and her daughter.
(Disclosure: Parks learned of the app through Jain, who is a personal friend of hers.)
Parks downloaded the app last year when her daughter received an iPhone for her 11th birthday.
“She’s at the age where the conversation is just: How are you? Good. Fine,'” Parks said. “This helps us move beyond that. I can see that she was looking up Romania on her phone and ask her if she’s doing a report on that.”
The app, which she can access from her phone or her laptop, allows her to see what websites her daughter has been on, and how long she stayed on them.
“Communication is going to be less and less as they get older,” she said. “This app helps me understand where her mind is.”
Parks said she plans on loosening her reign as her daughter grows older.
To reward her for her good behavior, Parks plans on allowing her daughter to use Instagram soon.
“I also make sure she understands that there' a world out there I don’t trust,” she said. “It’s not her I don’t trust.”
Parks, who is a financial analyst at Barclays, says such mobile monitoring apps train kids to be prepared for the workplace.
“My company monitors me. My emails are heavily monitored. I think before I email, I think before I post,” she said. “It’s a good habit to start when you’re younger.”