Aunt Edith in an Interesting Hat
Social Security – Part 5: Other Proposals

The Tyranny of Child Surveillance

Among the losses in a culture that places the virtues of youth and wealth above all others is the wisdom of elders. If grandparents still lived around the corner to advise and help with raising the kids, if the experience that can be gained only through decades of living were considered valuable, Crabby Old Lady probably would not need to be as alarmed as she is.

Earlier this week on National Public Radio, Crabby listened in shock to parents describing how they monitor their children’s email, computer passwords, chat and IM conversations, and watch their kids browse the Web, in real time, from other computers such as at work. Alternately, the so-called “security” software they use can save all this information for parental perusal at a more convenient time.

Parents can do this openly, letting their children know up front that nothing they do on their computers is private. Or, they can do it on the sly and the kid never knows his or her parents are reading those deepest teenage secrets kids keep to themselves or share only with their peers. One surveillance company boasts that its software can be installed without the knowledge of the computer owner, “runs in complete stealth and cloaks itself to hide from the remote user.”

The NPR story also described cell phone GPS software by which parents track children’s movements when away from home, including online maps showing the routes the kids are walking or driving, and even the speed at which the children are moving. Thus, a mother explained on the program, if the car her daughter’s friend is driving is going faster than mom approves, she phones her daughter to get out and wait for mom to pick her up.

There was no indication in this NPR story that any of the children being spied upon were special case kids of any kind - poor students, incipient criminals, drug users or emotionally crippled; no indication they were anything but normal teenagers. The parents said they spy on their kids to save them from sexual and other predators. One father described reading this message from a 14-year-old schoolmate of his daughter: “Are you humping your pillow now?”

The father piously told NPR that because he monitored this instant message conversation, he was able to stop his daughter from carrying on such talk, and that the boy’s parents were grateful to know that their son had typed such terrible language into his computer.

To which Crabby Old Lady can say only, "oh, come on," and she wants to know if these two sets of parents have lost their reason. Teens with raging hormones talking of pillow humping is so dangerous they must spy on their children? Crabby is a lot more worried about those parents than the kids.

A quick Google search easily turns up such as this:

“Concerned moms like Cristina Bedoya of Miami uses the same computer her 15-year-old daughter does to peek at who she's emailing or sending instant messages. All it takes is knowledge of your child's password or a click on the history button to see where they've visited on the Web…she refuses to feel guilty.”
-, 29 October 2004

Well, that mother should feel guilty and she should stop spying. Just knowing this stuff goes on makes Crabby Old Lady feel dirty. It may be legal, but it is - pure and simple - morally wrong.

If parents, as those on the NPR program insisted, believe they are protecting their children from all bad things by spying on them, they need to know it won’t work. Shit happens. Kids get hurt sometimes and secret surveillance will not change that.

But what spying on kids will do is teach them to not trust their parents. It will teach them to accept authoritarian surveillance and intrusion from other sources like the government and companies they will work for one day. It will teach them that to be watched at all times is an acceptable way to live in a free society.

Crabby wants to know how many times these lessons need to be taught. Older folks remember Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in which citizens were so successfully indoctrinated into the “correct” way of thinking and behaving that children were commonly known to turn in their parents to the secret police for their political opinions.

Think carefully, parents, when you are tempted invade your kids’ privacy, Keep it up, says Crabby Old Lady, and it won’t be too long until it’s your email the government is reading; your employer is already doing so.


As a parent I can't agree more.
We try to teach our kids independence and good judgement. Spying on them? For their own good?
The same mentality would have us locking them in their room and doing full body searches and lie detector tests.

Take Care

The companies that push this, I'm betting, are driven not by the thought that they are being "helpful", but by the almighty dollar. How many ads have we seen for devices that hide our speeding from the cops, that allow us to illegally copy a DVD or CD, that allow us to spy on others? Of course, there is always a disclaimer in the ad that the provider is NOT condoning breaking the law. Lordy, no! Shame on us for even considering using our wonderful technology to break the law!
It's turning out that those whom I considered paranoid idiots a few years ago are right on. It is NOT OK for us to spy on one another. It is NOT OK for us to delve into one another's private affairs (no pun intended). It is NOT OK for the people at Homeland Security to know everything there is to know about you and me. Gaaah!
Just plug us into the hive. We will be assimilated!

Exactly so. I find the idea of so monitoring children to be horrifying; and it teaches them, as you say, either that that is acceptable, or rampant distrust of their parents, or both. The software being "hidden" will last only until the first time the information is used, after all - if that long.

It's not about keeping their children safe, it's about making themselves feel more secure with a situation that is not - because it involves another person who is, if a teenager, likely asserting some degree of independence - is not in fact controllable by them.

I'm on the verge of parenthood which finds me obsessed with anything on the topic. I don't know what kind of mother I will be despite how sure I was during my teenage years. Yes, there's a long road between now and the day my boy might exercise his right to privacy from his parents. However, I thank you for posing a solid question. I sure hope it will seem as ridiculous then as it does today to invade their space with such gadgets and software. It's a pleasure to read your words and insights. Thanks much.


Yes, but how many kids have been horrified to find their parents reading their diary in days gone by - my mother found mine when I was about 15 and it was a horrifying experience for her. It didn't change my behaviour, but it sure made me stop writing anything down. Now look at me - I'm blogging! Some people never learn.

I know what you mean, Tom. When I was in college, I returned to my apartment from class one day to find that my brother and his wife were reading MY diary. It made me a lot more circumspect.

As to the thought of our kids growing up to believe that spying is acceptable, I'm wondering how an event at my place of employment would have unfolded had I been raised to believe that surveillance was normal.

Our company, as all companies do, had strict policies on how our computers/e-mail/internet access might properly be used by employees. As a manager, I received an e-mail from the administrative branch of engineering that demanded that I fill in the blanks on an attached memo, print it out, and present it to one of my engineers. The memo was chastizing him severely for miss-use of either e-mail or internet access (it didn't specify which).

I demanded right back that they either tell me more about the allegations against the guy (easily my most productive engineer) or stuff their memo where the sun didn't shine. First: I don't operate in the dark. Second: If one of my troops needs chastizing, I'll decide that he needs it, I'll do it MY way in MY words. I don't need someone else to put words in my mouth.

Amazingly enough, to the day I retired a couple of years later, I never heard another word about the issue. I can imagine that someone who grew up believing that surveillance was hunky-dory would have been intimidated into possibly ruining the guy's career. How depressing.

Great post. It raises some really interesting questions. On the one hand, I can't agree with you more - the idea of invading your child's privacy to this extent is absolutely abhorrent. It's like saying "anything that goes on under my roof is my business" which denies the child any right to privacy.

I know my mom found and read my diary on a number of occasions, as well as letters written to me by an "unsuitable" boyfriend - I still get angry when I think about it today, and spying on e-mail is no different.

On the other hand, the world is increasingly a more dangerous place for kids and teenagers than ever before. I mean, when I was a kid, all you had to learn was not to take sweets from strangers or get into their car. Now the internet gives kids, at a much younger age, the opportunity to interact with complete strangers without even leaving home. The old rules aren't good enough any more. I look at my brother's son, who is now 2, and wonder what sort of world he will grow up in.

Knowing the dangers that exist in the world, I'd be too scared to let him out of my sight until he was, say, 35 or so ;-). So looking at it from that perspective, I can see why parents are tempted to try and control what their kids see and do.

I also know that respect for privacy is coming under threat more and more, and the excuse for this erosion is always that it's for our own good. As a trend, this terrifies me. If we can't teach our children from a young age that privacy is a basic right to be cherished and respected, how will the next generation ever have any respect for an individual's basic human rights?

HI there. One thing I notice about modern parenting is that the proportionality and age-appropriateness has gone out the window. The GPS parents are totally out of line...unless the child is too young to really be out alone.

The kind of long-distance supervision that is possible is not necessarily good. It doesn't supply the child with the needed face-to-face interaction,b ut it gives theparent the delusion that a real connection is there.

On the other hand, some age-appropriate supervision is necessary. For example, what you do with a second or third grader is quite a bit different from what a high school student needs.

My daughter first got online with her friends when she was about 9. I told her then that I would scan her incoming and outgoing mail from time to time, and I would also be scanning what site she visited, and to please keep that in mind as she wrote and clicked. I told her that the supervision would lessen over time as she became older and acquired better judgement.

What are the spied-on children learning? That their parents don't trusth them?

I absoutely colud not agree more. This surge in spyware is not only offensive, and invasive but is a total disgrace. Our children have a right to piracy......(oops) i mean privacy. And now, when that young lady (who's parents read the e-mail about the "pillow humping") wants to engage in converastions about that sort of thing it will no longer be on the internet....but in person. Which will be her only alternative. Actually, i think we can assume that lots of children will reach out to strangers, or peers who might not be the greatests influences on them, because they feel that they can trust anyone but their parents.

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