When your kids get old enough that you can leave them home alone, it’s a thrilling moment of freedom for everyone. But’s it’s a tough transition. The kids might be fine. But the temptation to install video cameras so you can look in on them from afar is huge.
You just want to know your middle grade or high school age kids got home from school and didn’t bring home a stray puppy or new boyfriend with them. But kids tend to consider cameras an invasion of privacy or – worse — a debugging challenge. And, in my experience, any tween or teen worth his salt can debug a room in less than five minutes.
But your smart home can know a lot about who comes and goes, even without cameras. And that can be just as good as putting eyes on the situation. The thermostat, garage door opener, router, Netflix and other connected technologies can give eyes in the back of your head. Here’s how.
Your Wi-Fi router can tell you who is home, even if you aren’t.
Your router knows what everyone is doing. Before you think too hard about what this means to your privacy, harness it for your own needs. If you have a reasonably new router, such as the Orbi (pictured), Eero, Luma, or Google /Wi-Fi it might have an app that can tell you in a glance who is on your network at any given time. It might even offer some parental controls. (If not, consider upgrading. This is a feature every parent needs.)
Even an older router has geekier ways of getting you this sort of information, though you might need to consult its manual to figure this out. Once you know where to look, you will be amazed at how much data you can get. When your daughter gets home from school, her phone logs into the network immediately. If your son comes home with a posse of friends, they will all very likely log into the network from their phones because every parent is worried about data overages so kids have become experts at finding Wi-Fi connections.
All you have to do look. You can see who is there, when they arrived, when they leave, and – maybe – what they are up to on the Internet.
Your Garage Can Tell You when the Teen Gets Home with the Car
There is very little that’s more terrifying for a parent than a teenager with the keys to a car. Didn’t this child JUST master how to use a spoon! Now she is driving? You want to know where they are going in that thing. More than want. You need to know.
The first year of driving is the most dangerous. Cars are the number one killer of teens. You need to know when they take the car. And you can’t relax until they get home with it. Kids are often so thrilled to have access to a vehicle that they are willing to agree to any crazy rules you set up. But they are notoriously bad at communication. Your sanity is on the line; you need backup.
If you park the car in the garage, your garage can help. Install a smart garage door opener such as the one in the Vivint system or the Chamberlain. Then set it to tell you anytime anyone opens the garage. That way, you will know immediately if the car goes out for an unauthorized drive. And you will be able relax the very second that car – and it’s young driver – return home, without waiting for a teenager to tell you.
The Front Door
A lot happens at the front door. Get eyes on it.
Video doorbells — like the August, Ring, or Vivint — are great. They let you talk to people who come to your door – even if you aren’t home. They can also give you a startlingly detailed look into the life of your teenager, for whom a significant amount of important interaction happens at the front door.
Is that boy a threat to your daughter’s maidenhood? Or just a pal? She will likely insist the latter to buy more a more lenient watch from you. But if he kisses her goodnight at the front door, you will know she is just saying that to keep you from embarrassing her. (As if that awkward front-door attempt at romance wasn’t embarrassing enough.)
It can be shocking the things you learn from the front door: I have seen kids stagger up to the door drunk, heard detailed discussion of intended plans, and seen people come over in droves when I’ve been told, “Nope I’m just home reading.”
Trust. But verify.
A smart door lock tells you who comes and goes.
My daughter’s friends think I’m so cool. I welcome them into my home, going so far as to give them their own door code to our smart keyless entry system. (Mine is a Vivint system. But there are many choices: the Schlage Sense, August, and others.) And I make great snacks.
But there is method in my madness: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. When kids type in a unique code, I know who came in and when. Sometimes that’s fine. But if that boy who is, “OMG, no! Not my boyfriend!” comes over when I’m out, I know it’s time to head home. (See video doorbell above.)
The Cell Phone
Life360 tells you the minute the kids get home
Most service providers allow parents to track the location of their kid’s phones. There is usually a fee associated with this. I tell my kids there is a price for having a cell phone: I get to know where they are.
For that, they have to install Life360 (Free for the basic plan) on their phone. It’s not a bad deal for a kid who has nothing to hide. That way, I have only to look at the app on my own phone to see if they are home, at school, or cruising down Route 66 three states away.
Even Netflix is Watching You
The kids say they are doing homework. Netflix says otherwise.
This one is so easy that it always startles me when it works: My daughter is in her room, “doing homework.” I have my doubts. She is very quiet in there and her grades do not reflect this much hard work. A quick visit to my account at Netflix tells all. I log in from a computer, go to her profile, choose “Your Account,” and scroll down to “Viewing Activity.” It will tell me what she watched and when.
I can clearly see that, in the vernacular of the modern teen, “Homework” is equal to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” All arguments about her no longer needing parental controls on her laptop? Spurious, bogus, false, “Fake News!”
Welcome to the modern game of cat and mouse: parent vs. teen. If you know what you are doing, you can get enough data from your house and the devices in it to be better at supervision than you ever hoped to be. Is this surveillance? I like to compare it to the workplace: If you use your company’s email account, the data you transmit there belongs to the company. Same goes for my kids. When I am no longer paying for their housing and access to the Internet, they I will stop paying attention to what they do there.
Want more like this? Check out Using the Internet to Grow an Adult Gets Easier.