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Are More UK Parents Using Spy Equipment To Track Their Children?

Adrian Mudd   October 23, 2015

When you think of spy equipment or secretive surveillance you probably conjure up images of James Bond type scenarios – or perhaps think of suspicious employers trying to catch their employees in the act of stealing from them.

Yet perhaps surprisingly, it is parents who are increasingly investing in methods of spying on their children. In an age when tech-savvy children excel in all things digital, their parents are turning to discreet forms of technology to make sure that their loved ones are not endangering themselves or doing anything they shouldn’t be doing.

Is spying on the increase?

According to research carried out by AVG, some 60% of parents access their children’s Facebook accounts without them knowing – though around 80% of teens have privacy settings that seek to foil their parents’ attempts to do so. Parents generally lack knowledge of how to use parental controls on a variety of digital devices and are ill-equipped to know how to adequately police their children’s activities, particularly online. These factors combine to explain at least in part why there has been such an interest in spy equipment designed to keep tabs on children.

It would make sense that this figure will be higher than it was, say, a decade ago – since technology was less prevalent in our children’s lives then and perhaps perceived as less of a threat. Certainly there has been a rise in the number of apps aimed at parents who want to keep tabs on their children, from showing what children are searching for online to what they are saying to their friends on social media and in texts.

What is the law in relation to tracking children?

Before addressing the ethical rights or wrongs of spying on our offspring, it’s important firstly to set out the relevant parts of the law relating to spy equipment that apply to parent-child situations.

Firstly, any spy equipment can only legally be used in the UK for the purpose of legitimate security reasons: when dealing with the security of young people and ensuring their wellbeing, you may have strong arguments to demonstrate that these are legitimate security reasons.

>>Read the full guide to Spy Equipment Laws.

Using spy cameras to keep an eye on your kids

These are most often surveillance gadgets used by parents who wish to keep an eye on their nannies or childminders if they become suspicious about how their child is being treated; but some parents may use spy cameras to keep an eye on their children.

It is legal to place a security camera in your own home, though even in the case of your own children it would be illegal for you to use spy cameras in private areas, such as bathrooms.

Listening devices to keep track with what’s going on

You must use only legal listening devices (so only buy from reputable sources) in your own home or a public place, and use them only for legitimate reasons to do with safety and security – which, as a parent, you could argue was the case.

There are a variety of spy phone

Tracking devices for piece of mind

These are being increasingly used to help people keep track of elderly relatives who suffer from dementia and who have a history of wandering and getting lost. However, they are also being used by parents to keep tabs on where their children are. They can be attached to bags, clothing or hidden inside phones.

Using a tracking device to ensure that your child is safe is legitimate and legal.

Monitoring your children’s conversations

It is important to note that you can only record phone calls in secret if you don’t intend to share that information with anyone else – the only time you could legally do that is if you were acting to gather evidence for a ‘legitimate investigation’. You need to have concerns and some reason to suspect that your child’s security is at risk via phone calls – you cannot record their phone calls ‘just in case’.

Computer devices to monitor your kids online

This is where most parents feel that they are out of touch with what their children are up to and where they perceive the greatest threat to originate. Knowledge of the risks of grooming by paedophiles and an increase in sending explicit photographs between teenagers online is combined with a lack of knowledge of how to adequately police and protect children from this. Hence, the increasing use of computer devices to effectively spy on teenagers and younger children.

As long as you are the owner of the computer to which the device is fitted, you do not need to tell your child that you are monitoring the computer (if your child is under 18). It is considered legitimate and legal for a parent to monitor their children’s use of computers.

Possible moral issues

Far less black-and-white than the question of ‘can’ you spy on your child is the question, ‘should’ you do so?

Is it right to spy?

On the one hand, you have a duty as a parent to safeguard your child. Threats to your children no longer simply come from strangers offering them sweets in the street. Online they can be exposed to far greater numbers of strangers than they would ever meet outside the school gates, many of whom seek out contact with children for nefarious purposes, using the anonymity of the internet to bolster their own confidence and increase their chances of successfully grooming children and teens.

Children also expect greater freedoms these days and depending on their age it might be the norm for them to be able to go out with friends in nearby streets, or further afield. Many parents fear that their children may go to meet people whom they have met online – with dangerous consequences.

Teenagers and younger children certainly know what they want – but they do not know what is best for them. Only you as a parent understand this and can see it from a broader, more experienced perspective.

You may feel that you need the knowledge to be able to confront your child if you feel that they are lying to you, or to talk to your child about the risks that they are exposing themselves to.

Threats to children don’t just come from external sources – sometimes children and young people have far deeper and more disturbing thought patterns than their parents might think. Incidences of bullying (and cyber-bullying) and thoughts of suicide can often be missed if a child is secretive. Sometimes spying on a child is the only way to keep them safe from themselves as well as from others.

Is it wrong to spy?

If you were honest with your child and told them that you had installed means of keeping tabs on them, would they behave better for knowing that you were watching, or would they find other ways of keeping secrets that you couldn’t monitor? If the latter was the case, secretive spy equipment would be necessary – but how would you feel about that?

In an ideal world, you would have an open and honest relationship with your child and know that they would come to you for help and guidance if they needed it. But unfortunately, external influences can make a child secretive and once the trust has gone, it’s hard to recover. If your child discovered surveillance equipment had been used, that trust could be gone forever.

If you have taught your child about internet safety and personal safety then there ought to be no need to spy on them, but instead keep an eye out for signs of secrecy and try to keep lines of communication as open as possible.

Perhaps the answer is to plant spy equipment to get proof of something you already suspect but that your child has refused to confirm, so that you can help your child or challenge them effectively as needed.