Stalkerware won't keep your kids safe

Emma McGowan, 24 Feb 2021
Emma McGowan, 24 Feb 2021

Why focusing on developing critical thinking skills instead of fear-mongering is paramount

The term “stalkerware” usually refers to people covertly tracking their romantic partners. But a recent analysis of the advertising messaging and positioning used by the nine most common stalkerware apps detected by Avast antivirus found that stalkerware is also used to covertly track children.

“Stalkerware can be installed on somebody’s phone without their consent to stealthily monitor their communications activities, which we consider highly unethical,” Avast CISO Jaya Baloo says. “With this study, we took a closer look at the messaging used by these apps to understand the psychological tools they use to attract users. Unfortunately, these apps are preying on parents’ fears of protecting their children.” 

These child monitoring apps use marketing that focuses heavily on scare tactics, especially cyberbullying, access to inappropriate content, and the fear of online predators. They dig deep into the anxieties and concerns that parents already have and position themselves as the solution, offering everything from monitoring messaging apps, SMS, and phone calls to monitoring web browsing, allowing remote control of a smartphone, and turning on the microphone in the background to record conversations. 

But while it might be tempting to track kids without their knowledge, doing so might hurt your relationship with your child — and it could even make them less safe.

“That’s really a violation of freedom, boundaries, and consent,” child psychologist Catherine Knibbs previously told Avast. “It’s a betrayal. And it also reinforces the idea that their parents don’t trust them in the world, so behavior becomes secretive. In the end, that’s not very helpful.” 

Instead of resorting to stalkerware, kids’ online safety expert Parven Kaur, founder of the website Kids N Clicks, recommends having ongoing open conversations with your kids about both online and offline safety

“The conversations we have with them will also differ according to their age group and maturity,” Kaur previously told Avast. “For younger children, we can introduce to them the idea of how the internet actually works. For example, get them to think about the internet as a global city where everyone is far away but can be connected to each other. Get them to think about how there is always a person sitting behind a screen and what we say or do might affect that person.”  

Knibbs also previously recommended focusing on developing critical thinking skills, rather than fear-mongering like these child monitoring apps do. 

“Rather than saying ‘there are bad people out there online,” Knibbs says. “Say something like, ‘Who are friends online? How do you know they’re a friend and not just someone you talk to? How do you know it’s a genuine person?’”

So while parental control apps have a place in helping keep kids safe, the most important thing is being open and honest with your kids.


Further reading:
How to talk to your kids about sharing online during Covid
The dangers your kids face online might not be what you think
A comprehensive checklist for privacy-savvy parents


“Creating a safe environment for your child starts with trust and while parental controls can be helpful, stalkerware is not the answer,” Baloo says. “Children have a fundamental right to privacy and independence as well, and staying informed about your child’s online activities is important and requires consent. Transparency and open conversations are key.”