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Commentary: Tracking your child’s online activity should not be done covertly

Installing apps to see what your child is up to online is useful but can worsen relationships if done wrongly, says Professor Lim Sun Sun.

SINGAPORE: COVID-19 has seen the acceleration of plans to equip all Secondary School students with a laptop or tablet in Singapore.

This is encouraging news. With the accelerated launch of the programme to equip all secondary school students in Singapore with personal devices, scaffolds are being introduced to make the digitalised learning environment conducive and edifying for all students.

But the recent revelation that these learning devices will be installed with a device management application (DMA) that captures data on students’ online activities including web search history was met with consternation by students, even triggering an online petition.

READ: Application installed on students' devices does not track personal information: MOE

In response, the Ministry of Education sought to reassure everyone that the DMA does not record personal information such as location or passwords but tracks search history to “restrict access to objectionable material".


Whereas some students were reportedly aghast at this gross intrusion into their privacy, some parents in fact welcomed such monitoring of their children’s internet use.

Putting aside these fraught conversations around privacy that have already been tackled elsewhere, parental support for monitoring children’s devices is another intriguing issue to delve into.

READ: Commentary: When should children be allowed to have their own mobile phones?

To be sure, parental enthusiasm for such surveillance in not altogether surprising. Given rising concerns about children’s exposure to pornographic, violent or extremist online content and fears of excessive screen time, automated monitoring of children’s online activity may in fact appeal to some parents.

After all, most parents feel duty bound to shield their children from adverse influence both online and offline, to protect them from physical harm and to provide guidance in times of need.

A recent survey by Google of parents in the Asia Pacific found that parents in Singapore reported that the two greatest online threats their children faced in the past year were exposure to inappropriate content and oversharing on social media.

READ: Commentary: YouTube stars make bad role models and it’s all our fault


With lifestyles more hectic, families increasingly time-pressed and children online for longer periods, many parents probably feel that a little help from technology can do no harm.

In a world where our activity logs, sleep patterns and spending habits are religiously recorded by our smart watches, digitally tracking your children’s online activity may seem like a natural and innocuous extension of our technologised lifestyle.

Except that digital surveillance by parents of children must be undertaken with care. In the first instance, it must not be done covertly.

Parents should not surreptitiously install monitoring software or parental filters but be upfront with your children. Strive for mutual agreement on what the monitoring and filtering entail and how these will restrict their online activity and device use time.

File photo: Students using tablet computers. (Photo: AFP/Damien Meyer)

Reiterate to your children that your goals to keep them safe and guide them to use technology sensibly.

READ: Commentary: Singapore needs a new Smart Nation vision that doesn't leave any citizen behind

Younger children are likely to be more open to monitoring and restrictions but as they grow older, these measures have to be revisited and progressively relaxed if your children’s history of device use does not give you cause for concern. 

Above all, children must feel assured that the data arising from digital monitoring will not be weaponised to punish them, or this can lead to ugly confrontations and strain family ties.

Second, view such digital monitoring in the broader context of your parent-child bonds. If you and your children already have a relationship of trust, introducing mutually agreed digital controls and filters to help you guide their device use may be beneficial.

It is natural for parents to be curious about what your children get up to online. But resist the urge to stealthily monitor your children’s online activity.

This will breach whatever trust lies between you, especially when you need to discuss with them whatever you find that is concerning. Your child may become even more secretive and evasive as a result.

Spying on your child’s online activity may gain you some insights, but it cannot build mutual understanding, let alone trust. Third, let your child and not the data do the talking. Online parental controls, tracking software and screen time records cannot supersede parenting.

Neither should parents be lulled into a false sense of security from having installed such digital tools.


Data about your children’s device use - sites they visit, games they play, videos they watch, people they chat with, search terms they use, amount of time they spend - can give you a picture of what your children do online, but you still need to personally fill in the blanks on how your children are selecting and processing all this content.

Make time to talk to them, ask them to share with you interesting online discoveries and to raise confusing or disturbing content with you. Assure them that you are not there to judge but to guide, not to condemn but to confer.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 has revealed a new disadvantaged group among us – digital outcasts

With an open and communicative relationship, there is a greater likelihood that your child will turn to you in times of need or distress.  

The afore-mentioned Google survey also found that that 65 per cent of Singaporean parents were confident that their children were well-informed about online safety issues and 78 per cent believed their children would approach them if encountering any online safety problems.

Such data is encouraging and perhaps reflects that public education efforts in digital parenting and media literacy have raised awareness of such issues and best practices.

Notably however, one in five Singaporean parents reported not having done anything to address their children’s online safety concerns.

Precisely because technology use will intensify in school, at home and beyond, parents need to foster a relationship of trust with our children so that we are their first port of call when they encounter online challenges.

Digital surveillance via online parental controls, tracking software and screen time monitors is by no means a magic bullet for understanding your child’s online activity.

Ultimately, raising children in the digital age still rests on family ties and parent-child communication - data is no substitute for dialogue.

Listen to a communications researcher and a lawyer break down WhatsApp's new terms of service on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:


Lim Sun Sun is Professor of Communication and Technology and Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Her most recent book is Transcendent Parenting - Raising Children in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Source: CNA/cr