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Parents can spy on teens' smartphones, but should they?

Aaron Pressman

Kids today face a host of dangers that didn't exist as prior generations came of age. Whether it's sexting, cyberbullying or overly accessible and highly inappropriate content (aka porn), kids are faced with a whole new array of potentially risky behaviors, many just a click or text away on the ubiquitous smartphone.

What's a modern parent to do? Ameeta Jain, the LA mom of teenagers and co-founder of Teensafe, thinks the answer lies in technology. Competing against a host of similar apps and services, the $15-per-month Teensafe program lets parents keep tabs on their kids' smartphone activities in detail.

Subscribing parents can see texts sent, received or deleted by their kids, as well as online web surfing and activity in many apps popular with teens like Whatsapp and Instagram. The app also shows the location of the child's phone at all times.

Parents, of course, still have to log in to Teensafe's web dashboard regularly to check up on their children's activities. And if there's something not right, they probably need to intervene quickly.

For many parents, the peace of mind provided by monitoring and tracking apps is worth the invasive behavior. Many parents are worried about what their kids are doing online, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. Almost three-quarters of parents said they were concerned about their kids interacting with unknown people online and 70% worried kids might jeopardize future employment or academic opportunities because of online activity. And other surveys, though typically done by companies with a stake in the outcome, show that cyberbullying and inappropriate messaging and sexting are real issues. Yahoo Tech columnist Dan Tynan reviewed Teensafe and some other options last year.

"We should be telling our children when we give them those smartphones that this is a privilege," Jain says in the video above. "But with that privilege, we are going to live up to our number one responsibility as your parent and monitor you so that we can help protect you and keep you safe."

But it's not clear that apps like Teensafe are the right answer for everyone.

First, there is the issue of privacy. Since the beginning of time, teens have had some personal space, their own circle of friends and their own secrets. Little of what parents don't know is harmful or dangerous. It may just be embarrassing, irrelevant or personal. Even online, much activity is benign. Only one in ten teens use controversial anonymous communications apps, like YikYak, that have become the center of much inappropriate activity, according to Pew.

Jain argues that the potential harms from online mistakes, which may live forever in the bowels of search engines and social networks, are too great to ignore.

"As parents, we have to keep in mind that these are minors," Jain responds. "We have every right to monitor our minors. With the level of permanence and the understanding of that permanence, we have to be there to help guide them through that."

Even if a parent is comfortable with the monitoring, there's another complication. Apps like Teensafe capture reams and reams of activity from even a single phone. Sorting through all the hundreds of text messages and other app activities to find any hint of trouble can all too easily become a full-time job.

Jain says parents can log in periodically and make a quick check.

"Log in whenever you choose to and take a quick check," says Jain. "Teensafe is supposed to be used with love and respect and thoughtfulness toward your child."
 
But the occasional quick check may not provide the bullet-proof protection fearful parents are seeking. And if kids become too reliant on the parental safety net and don't learn the skills of smart digital citizenship on their own, a quick check may not catch the lapses.

Bottom line? Tracking apps can be a useful tool, especially when kids are younger and their online activities are are not quite as hectic. But no parent can depend solely on such an app to protect their kids. Instilling good behaviors, including by taking away that phone if necessary, are just as important, if not more so (Yahoo Tech's Tynan had some good advice on that score, as well).

After all, one day those kids will be on their own and mom and dad won't be able to stop them from sending that drunken text or posting a nude photo. They'll have to know how to make good decisions, or face the consequences, on their own.