An article by Matt Ryan titled How to Tell if Your Teen is Browsing Adult Sites popped up in my Google Plus stream the other day. I believe it was posted by Chris Perillo, and I found it to be especially hilarious considering the content and the approach to the topic. Locker Gnome is usually a semi decent source of various technology tips and discussions and to see this sort of an article there gave me a pause. I would have more expected to see it in a more conservative publication such as “Prudish Prudence’s Properly Backwards Parenting Tips” or something like that.
I ask myself, who was this article targeted at? Was it aimed at the regular, more or less tech savvy, and fairly young readership of the site? Because the reaction from the readers was mostly cold. I saw bunch of rather articulate teens talking about parent-child relationship, the importance of trust and two sided dialog and various other mature arguments why interne spying on your teenage child is generally a lousy idea. The Google Plus comments on the other hand, mostly from older readers revolved around simple ways a tech-savvy teen could circumvent all the mentioned measures with little to no effort.
If the article was aimed at less tech savvy, older audiences then it is both too technical, and also full of bad advice. I wanted to take a few minutes of your time and poke at the holes in this article.
First off, let’s look at the title: how do you know if your teenage kids are browsing teh pornz? Well, there are easy steps to find out:
- Step the first: they are. Period. Full stop. End of list.
There are no other steps. If your teenage kid has no interest in p0rn then you should probably pay attention, because it probably means they either are having a ridiculous amounts of awkward and likely unprotected sex in real life or have some sort of hormonal imbalance. I don’t know how old is Matt Ryan but it seems to me he has forgotten how it is to be a teenager. All of us were sailing the troubled rivers of puberty at one point or the other. When I was that age, I did not have free adult content available on the internet. I had to pay for my dirty magazines. Hell, I actually had to walk up to a store clerk, and brazenly ask for these magazines in person. Do you know how fucking difficult that is for a shy, introverted, socially awkward kid? But you know what, I still did it. If guilt, shame and lack of any kind of fake ID did not stop me from obtaining access to “age inappropriate materials”, then do you really think that a modern teenager is not going to take advantage from the wealth of free and easily accessible online adult content given half a chance?
Next Matt outlines signs and symptoms that your teenager might be up to something no good:
Do They Browse the Web with the Door Closed? Closing the door provides a barrier that allows for plenty of warning before the contents of a computer screen might be discovered by parents or guardians. If the door can’t be locked, the mere act of closing it gives someone an extra second or two to react, switch or close windows, and situate ones self to avoid suspicion.
I am not a parent, so maybe I am not being realistic here, however whenever parents ask me for tips on how to control their kids internet use the best advice I can give them is “don’t give your kid a personal computer unless you think they can handle the internet”. I usually recommend setting up a study area with one or two shared desktops the kids will have access to. This is where they will be doing their homeworks, online research, and recreational web browsing. Having them work in an area that is not their bedroom provides a structured environment and can help to create good study/work habits. I highly dislike the concept of a child doing homework curled up on their bed while watching Jersey Shore on TV, blasting loud music and texting friends. I’d prefer them to have a designated study area with proper computer desks. Granted, not everyone has space for this, but if you do – this is the way to go. You can arrange it in such a way that a parent, guardian or babysitter can always monitor online usage. It’s even better if you use the same study area to do your own work in the evenings – so you both monitor their usage, and also reinforce the purpose of the study area as the proper place to use a computer. Not only that, but it also lets you put definite boundaries on how much your kid spends online or on the computer in general.
The point is that if you have custom in your household that you don’t use computers in the bedrooms then, and you have designated quiet working area shared by all family members, your kids may not even consider asking for a private bedroom computer until they are much older.
This way you can safely let them close their bedroom doors sometimes so they can masturbate in peace. Cause they do that, you know. And you should talk to them about it too. And while you are at it, explain a thing or two about pr0n, objectification, and etc. You know, put it context. Also mention make sure they know about malware pr0n scams. I know, I know – this is America, kids are supposed to learn this from Uncle TV and Aunt Public Education – but I personally think that healthy dialog is the way to go. But I digress.
The point is that a teen desiring privacy in their bedroom is not necessarily a sign of nefarious conduct. It is natural to for kids to want and need more privacy and autonomy as they grow up. I think it is good idea to empower older teens by giving them a sense of control and a degree privacy – but that of course requires trust, and ongoing dialog.
Have they Rearranged their Room so the Monitor Faces Away from the Door? If you decide to allow your teen to have an Internet connection in their room, have they arranged it so what they see can’t be seen by someone passing by? This is a common action taken by teens that don’t want their parents prying into their personal life, but it could also be a sign that they’re doing something that they might not want you to know about.
This paragraph is so 90’s I’m getting prangs of nostalgia for the good old times. Once upon a time, teenagers had desktop computers in their room. These days the only teens that might still be using desktops are gamers, but most kids these days (and parents too) prefer cheaper consoles over super expensive gaming rigs. So here is a newsflash Matt: teens use laptops now. No need to re-arange the room. They can re-arange the computer instead.
Do They Get Nervous and Uncomfortable When You Use Their Computer? (…) If you suspect that they are doing something they shouldn’t, but don’t want to outright accuse them, you could take a moment to “show them something” on their computer. Perhaps find a viral video or perhaps an informational website that you think might interest them. Go to their computer, while they are in their room, and pull that site up for them. Do they object to you using their system to pull up a website? If so, there might be more going on than they want you to know about.
The problem with this point is that there are a lot of reasons why a teenager could be nervous about someone using their computer. If you don’t recall, when you are a teenager pretty much everything that happens in your life is serious fucking business. For a modern teenager their computer is their personal diary, the repository of their super secret love letters and incriminating, suggestive chat logs. A kid may not as much be concerned that you find some porn sites in their browser history, but that you might stumble onto the embarrassing love poem in their Gmail outbox.
I’m really not sure if Mr. Ryan has ever witnessed teenage girls sharing gossip on the phone, and how big of a deal it is for them if someone even appears to be eavesdropping on their “oh, so private” and so pedestrian, boring and infantile secrets.
Also, here is why I always hated when people used my computer: greasy fucking hands. It’s quite rude to demand that someone washes their hands before using your computer, but I personally never handle my computers (or any electronics) with unwashed paws. I never eat at my desk, and I never use hand lotions when I know I will be typing. Greasy keys are my is my pet peeve – I just can’t help it. So when someone is using y machine, all I can usually think about is how they did not wash their hands after dinner, or how I saw them applying that hand cream five minutes ago. So yeah – take that into account.
Is Your Browser History Periodically Erased? Perhaps the most obvious sign that someone is using the computer to look at something unapproved is that your browser history is suddenly gone. Perhaps not entirely wiped out, but you know the teen has been on the computer for the last several hours and yet there is nothing in the history to indicate they’ve been anywhere at all.
Here is the thing: there is no good reason not to browse the web in incognito mode. In fact, this is what I often teach my users: separate your social and casual browsing across multiple independent browser instances. Use one browser for all the tracking cookie happy social networks such as Facebook and Google, and then another separate browser in locked down privacy mode for casual and more adventurous browsing that you don’t want to be tracked. I would definitely want my kids to be privacy and security conscious. So for anyone who cares about online privacy, gaps or even a complete lack of browser history is not a red flag, but rather an indication that the kids are “doing it right” and have proper, privacy preserving browsing habits.
Google Search History: Your teen probably has an account of their own, but there are times when Google search might be initiated through the browser without realizing that your account is still enabled. Take a moment to check your Google search history against what you actually search for. If you see some suspicious searches, it might raise an alarm for you.
There is absolutely no good reason to ever have Google Search History enabled on any account. This should always be the first thing you disable when creating a new account, and also the first thing you teach your kids when you help them set up their Gmail. Because you as a parent are supposed to do that kind of things. You are also supposed to secure a domain name for your family so that your kids can have proper firstname.lastname@example.org emails so that they don’t look like idiots when they send out their first resumes to potential companies. It’s called thinking ahead.
Keyloggers and Network Monitoring: I’m not a fan of keyloggers, but there are some applications out in the wild that will allow you to keep tabs on what your teen is typing into the keyboard. This could tell you where they are going without alerting them to your tracking.
This is possibly the worst advice in the history of bad advice. Most of Lockergnome readers are probably knowledgeable enough to stay away from shady keylogger software. But the article seems to be a link-bait, posing as a general parenting resource. When you mention keylogging as a potential parental control avenue, but do not provide concrete links to “safe” and reputable software you are risking pointing clueless readers in the wrong direction. Saying “do your own research on keyloggers” is the absolutely wrong thing to do, because that’s what people will do. And then they will end up with bunch of trojan ridden, creadit card stealing malware on their systems. That’s more or less what you are going to get when you google for “keyloggers”.
If you didn’t bother doing any research on safe, secure and effective software in this category then I would recommend skipping it altogether. I tend to steer users that are really determined on monitoring unsupervised online usage towards more overt methods. Parental control products such as Norton Online Family have flexible content filters that can block or merely report usage based on url’s, search keywords and etc. Since these tools are not transparent to the end user, they also force the parent to have a conversation with their child with regards to why the monitoring software is installed, and what content it is reporting or blocking – which is definitely a good thing. Open conversation is always better than covert spying and springing accusations on unsuspecting teen.
If you use a covert keylogger, you have exactly one chance to catch your teen red handed. Once you spring your trap, they will know you are spying, and will take measures to counteract it. It is not a very effective way to handle things.
None of the advice given in the article clues in the unsuspecting parents onto the existence of live OS’s that can be booted from a CD or a thumb drive that allow bypassing any and all local software restrictions, and all local tracking. Nothing mentions filtering or tracking at the gateway rather than at the client. It also does not mention how difficult it would be to actually lock down a PC in such a way that a teenager would have to spend a considerable amount of time to crack it.
It also completely fails to mention that most teenagers – especially late teens tend to own smart phones these days. These devices give them uninhibited access to all the adult materials they can find online, and are much harder to control and monitor. Most parents don’t even realize how much porn can be watched on a simple internet enabled phone, or even on a wifi enabled iPad or iPod Touch. The fact that Apple prohibits adult apps from being sold in the App Store does not have any effect on thousands of html5 streaming sites that can be accessed via Safari.
In summary: Lockergnome – I am dissapoint.
The article is lazy, poorly researched, and full of outdated, and sometimes even misguiding advice. It steers people toward covert invigilation and baind-aid resolutions rather than opening communication channels, and working towards instilling responsible browsing habits in young children. Parenting in the information age is a very complex subject, and one that most parent centered publications tend to either avoid like plague, or to cover poorly. It is sad to see a somewhat reputable technology blog serve up advice that is not much better, and in places much worse than that.
The sad truth is that if you are a parent of a teenager, and you are just now realizing the need to monitor their browsing habits, you have likely missed the boat. Your kid is likely a seasoned pr0n connoisseur by now. This is not something you can download a patch for. Proper computer and internet usage instruction should be started early on. As they are beginning to learn to write, they should also be learning to touch type under your supervision. That’s also a good time to start educating them about dangers of the internet. It is also a good time to create a space in which they can explore and experiment with technology and the internet your personal supervision. It’s not just about monitoring, but about having control over how and when your kids can access technology and within what environment. I don’t think I am qualified enough to give credible advice here, but I know enough to point out bad advice when I see it.