Some parents have ulterior motives for befriending their children on social media. Photo: Li Hao/GT
If you think your parents have accounts on social networking websites such as Facebook, Sina Weibo or WeChat just so they can keep up with technological trends or stay in touch with their friends, think again. They could be monitoring your every post and comment, either using their real name or lurking behind a pseudonym and headshot of someone pretending to be your new buddy. Keeping tabs on kids Social networking has become an essential part of young people's lives. It has also given many parents, who feel worried or distant from their children, a platform to garner as much information about their kids as possible. According to US blog Education Database Online, half of all parents join Facebook to keep tabs on their kids. Some 43 percent of parents check their children's profile on a daily basis, with their main interest being in status updates and photos. Cases of parents hacking into their children's Facebook accounts have been common since the social networking website was launched in 2004. The dean of St. John's, a college at Cambridge in the UK, adopted a fake Facebook profile to monitor students, The Telegraph reported in 2008. Parents around the globe are turning to social media to monitor their kids, and Chinese parents are no exception. A father surnamed Liu admitted that his primary motivation for keeping a Weibo account is to spy on his 18-year-old daughter. "It is the only way to know what she's interested in, what kind of people she's socializing with, and whether she has a boyfriend," said Liu. Using a fictitious profile of a young woman in her 20s, Liu secretly follows his daughter's posts and comments daily. The most exciting discovery he made was reading a post that revealed what his daughter really thinks of her parents. "She posted some silly words that her mother and I said once, and said that we are funny. Although she didn't say it to us face to face, I feel glad that she doesn't hate us," Liu said. Liu also admitted often using search engines, such as Baidu and Google, to search his daughter's name, but he justifies this by saying "employers will do it anyway.""If she wants a government job in future, a clean personal Internet record is necessary," he insisted.Liu admits feeling guilty about snooping, but he is determined to keep his account as long as his daughter remains active on Weibo.
Some tech-savvy parents snoop on their children by setting up real or fake social networking accounts, but experts say it's easy for wary kids to foil such surveillance stunts by adjusting their privacy settings. Photo: Li Hao/GT
On the lookout for love Dong Yifei, a college student majoring in English literature, is friends with his mother on instant messaging service QQ. However, Dong's mother often takes her snooping a step further."My mother once read my QQ chat records. She used my computer after I carelessly forgot to log out of my QQ account," he said. Dong, a college junior, argued with his mother after he learned she had invaded his privacy, but admits he understands his parents' concerns."As I grow older, we are talking less. They will try anything and everything to get to know more about my life, and I understand that," he said. Like most proud young men his age, Dong seldom opens up to his parents, and his parents, like many old-fashioned Chinese of their generation, aren't good at communicating with their son either. "I guess [mother] was worried because I don't have a girlfriend. She probably wanted to see if I have some secret romance," said Dong. While Western parents might be worried about their children approaching their 30s and still partying too much, Chinese parents are worried their children don't hang out with the opposite sex enough. Chen Lijuan is friends with her 21-year-old daughter on QQ and WeChat. Chen, 49, encourages her daughter to meet male friends. When her daughter leaves home to socialize with a friend, Chen always asks hopefully if it is a boy.Although her daughter is only 21, Chen is worried. "I feel the pressure, as society is filled with 'leftover women,'" said Chen, using a term that refers to single women of marriageable age.Chen, a nurse, considers WeChat an especially useful platform to get her points across to her daughter. She sends her daughter links to articles that reflect her views and concerns. "It is better than nagging because there is no direct confrontation. Regardless of whether she reads them or not, she knows my thoughts and attitudes," said Chen.Besides seeking a spark for her daughter's love life, Chen is also eager to learn about how she perceives her future. Before the age of smartphones, Chen used to scan her daughter's unattended QQ account to snoop around and see if she had any friends who might be a bad influence. But now Chen is disappointed that her daughter doesn't post any "juicy" information on her WeChat account. "She might have blocked me," Chen laughed. "I figure that's more or less it. All my other friends share posts, but I never see [my daughter] posting anything."Anti-surveillance methods A mini-industry has developed to help parents spy on their children's online activity. Software and websites, such as uKnowKids.com and Webwatcher, help parents monitor their children's Internet activity or even their location by tracking their cellphones.However, most young people still have the upper hand in this battle. Parents might think they are so clever by spying on their kids, but many youngsters have their own strategies to protect themselves from being watched. Some even turn the tables by preying on their parents without their knowledge. "[Anti-surveillance methods] involve little more than defriending parents, blocking their accounts, limiting their access to content they can view, or just using two accounts," said Elise Zheng, 24, a student at the School of International Studies at Peking University. Zheng wrote a widely read online article titled "Do you dare let your parents befriend you?" The article, first posted on popular science website guokr.com on February 17, solicited thousands of comments from young people sharing their own experiences and venting complaints. "[WeChat] has changed in a subtle way since parents have joined. Many people have 'blacklisted' their parents quietly to avoid being 'stalked,'" she wrote in her article. Zheng, originally from Chongqing, is active on Weibo, WeChat, renren.com, Facebook, Instagram and Flickr. Her friends and followers include her parents and many of her relatives. Initially, Zheng never thought about her parents reading her posts. "But the problem is my boyfriend's father also follows me, and he indirectly complained to my boyfriend about me using curse words," said Zheng, who said she now words her posts more carefully. Maturing parent-child relationsZheng recalled feeling scared and embarrassed the moment she realized her mother had logged on to her renren.com account and seen all of her and her friends' posts and photos. She prepared to be lectured by her mother about "goofing around" and having friends who were a bad influence, but Zheng's mother simply smiled and said, "Your friends are interesting and your life is colorful.""I think this is far from 'spying,'" said Zheng, who doesn't regret teaching her mother to use Weibo. "In this online era, maybe it's not hard anymore for parents to really become friends with their children. Being brave enough to befriend your parents might actually be a sign that indicates you have become an adult who can talk to your parents," Zheng wrote in her article. "Technology doesn't change emotions. Personally, I think no technology can 'improve' a parent-child relationship," said Zheng. Dana Boyd, a senior research fellow at New York University, said during an interview with The Verge, an American technology news and media network, that kids are finding their own ways to express themselves in the digital world."My frustration about how we approach young people is that we think that everything must be so much worse because of technology," she said. "We do this thing with kids where we try to keep them safe from every form of danger. Not only do we have diminishing returns in terms of time and energy, but we have unintended consequences just like we do with security, which is that we've eroded [kids'] opportunities to learn, to participate, to make sense of this world." Tang Liyue contributed to this story