Spying vs. Accountability: What’s the difference?

By Patrick Smith

“What I am doing online isn’t your business. I am not interested in being spied on!”

When a piece of software is capable of reporting all of someone’s browsing history, it certainly can be used for “spying,” so this is a common refrain among those resisting Internet accountability.

It raises a legitimate question: What is the difference between spying and accountability? The answer to that question has important ramifications. How Covenant Eyes is used is greatly impacted by the motivations of the Accountability Partner. In fact, the disposition of an Accountability Partner, in part, determines the success of the accountability relationship.

Spying: Double-Edged Secrecy

Browsing for illicit content often involves a high degree of secrecy: deleting browsing history and temporary Internet files, “in-private browsing,” clearing the cache, etc.  For many, the secrecy even adds to the euphoria of their illicit activity.

“One of the things we know about the people who form addictive behaviors is that they are likely to be risk takers,” said John Martin, Ph.D., a Clinical Research Professor of Psychology at Fuller Seminary. “A behavior which requires secrecy carries with it the risk of being caught. That risk accentuates and potentially multiplies the pleasure.”

On the other side of the relationship sits a wife or mother trying to discover why a husband or child is distant. In some cases, the decision is made to spy on the family member. It is important to remember, though, that this too is secretive behavior. Adding a layer of secrecy to an already distant relationship rarely has a positive effect.

As Rev. Jim Rose, counselor with Nehemiah Ministries, points out, secrecy detracts from the quality of meaningful relationships in life. “Secrecy reduces the capacity for genuine intimacy.”

“Spying in such a situation is generally counterproductive as it leads to more mistrust,” he added.

Spying creates competition in which one person eventually gains the advantage, emerges as the winner, and the competition is over. In a situation where someone has used an accountability tool to spy, the outcomes are typically pretty ugly. Whether it is justified or not, the person who is “spied” on often feels betrayed and angry. Because of its secretive nature, spying erodes trust.

Conversely, the engine that drives accountability is transparency. Both parties enter into accountability relationships intent on openness and honesty. Because of this foundation, accountability builds trust over time.

Bringing Secrets to Light

Most people would never be tempted to view illicit material if someone else was present. For many, this is what Internet accountability accomplishes. It brings formerly secretive things into the light—showing them for what they really are.

Allowing oneself to be vulnerable through accountability pulls back the curtain on an area of our lives that many prefer to be totally private. That privacy (or in many cases secrecy) can be dangerous.

“There is an intimacy with opening Internet usage to accountability partners,” Martin said.

“Accountability reminds us of that appropriate shame beforehand, preventing temptation from taking root,” added Rose.

The Right to Privacy

What about the commonly held assumption that a husband or teenager is entitled to broad swaths of life that remain completely private?

“Such a mentality is a highly risky invitation to sexual sin,” Martin cautioned. This perceived right-to-privacy often grows into an aversion to transparent accountability.

This is especially true of a teenager’s struggle for independence. A parent wants to ensure that his teenager is staying safe online. The teen wants privacy and resists the presence of Internet Accountability software. It is helpful to remember that, in such a situation, more communication is better than less. A conversation around the motivation behind accountability goes a long way.

“It is a wise parent who establishes these kinds of communication patterns early with their children,” Rose said.

Internet Accountability software can be used as a springboard for weekly conversations about a young person’s Internet activity and life in general, Rose said. If properly approached, these conversations provide opportunities for substantive parent/child conversations.

Accountability: Worth the Work

Whether you’re serving as an Accountability Partner for a child, a spouse, or a friend, maintaining an “accountability mindset” takes work. It is far too easy to slip into a judgmental state when the weekly report rolls in.

Being an effective partner means looking carefully at each report, but the line between diligence and judgment is a fine and often foggy one. That line defines the real distinction between accountability and spying. Looking over a report with the intent to punish will yield very different results than a desire to nurture. Ultimately, caring for someone through accountability will yield far more long-term fruit than spying.