This story is part of a series on parenting—from surveilling our teens to helping our kids navigate fake news and misinformation.
I’m a father of two teenagers, 13 and 17. I don’t want your pity, but I do want your understanding. It’s true what they say about the hazards of parenting teenagers. It is indeed more difficult than parenting a toddler. At the very least, it is much more emotionally exhausting.
Like virtually all kids born in this century, mine are digital natives, and they were both successful at finagling their own smartphones once they hit sixth grade. I was on board with this, as their arguments in favor of having dedicated devices were compelling. What if the bus broke down and they needed me to pick them up? Wouldn’t it be nice to have their own phone for calling their mother (who lives out of state), so they didn’t have to borrow mine? What if there was an emergency?
All valid arguments, but even I knew the truth: They wanted phones so they could screw around online.
Like every good parent, I delivered those first phones along with strong warnings, advice, and hard-earned life lessons about the dangers of misuse. But mostly there were rules. There would no devices at mealtimes, ever, so as not to become one of those families that sits in slack-jawed silence as each member stares at their own screen. Adult content restrictions would be implemented as I saw fit. Later, after discovering my daughter had secreted a contraband Chromebook in her room to watch late-night Friends, all devices would be sequestered in the master bedroom overnight.
And this rule was above all else: The devices all belong to me and my wife, and we are entitled to see anything and everything on them.
Until WIRED asked me to write this story, it did not occur to me that there was an ethical debate around any of this. It’s always been my position not only that parents are justified in monitoring what their children do online, but that it is in fact their moral obligation to do so. Failure to monitor your kids’ digital footprints is irresponsible parenting. Most parents hold the same opinion. Pew says that 61 percent of parents have checked their kids’ web history.
There are any number of reasons why monitoring your kid’s phone makes sense. These range from the relatively benign (they could be cheating on their homework) to the severe (they could be texting a drug dealer). Cyberbullying is a particular concern, and it’s a veritable epidemic; 42 percent of children say they’ve been bullied online, according to i-Safe, and 35 percent have been actively threatened. Of those kids, 58 percent never tell their parents.
Similarly, child predators are likely a bigger problem online than off. Chris Hadnagy, who has advised the Pentagon on cybersecurity issues, says that “online grooming can be successful in less than an hour.” An hour.
Not sold? Consider a worse, reverse scenario: In October a mother turned in her son to the police because she found videos of school shootings on his phone, potentially averting a copycat crime. Surely any parent of a murderer must be haunted by the thought that they could have prevented disaster by simply flipping through their kid’s phone once in a while. And when something bad does happen, parents are on the hook: You can be legally charged for your kids’ criminal behavior, such as after a 2018 shooting incident at an Indiana middle school.
Nevertheless, am I a bad person to be so suspicious of my pride and joy? Am I guilty of—shudder—invading my children’s privacy?
In truth, few people seem to think so, to the point where it’s barely a point of discussion. The bulk of the legal conversation around children’s right to privacy today revolves around “sharenting,” when a child is exploited for profit, say, in an embarrassing YouTube video posted by a parent. When it comes to digital monitoring, the law is clear and absolute: Children have zero expectation of or right to privacy from their parents. There’s even some science behind this. Linda Charmaraman, the director of Wellesley Centers for Women’s Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab says, “There is evidence that parental monitoring of online and mobile content is associated with lower problematic internet behaviors, such as internet addiction and being a perpetrator of cyberbullying.”
It took some doing to find someone who would support the counterargument, and that was Shoshanna Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. She argues that surveilling your children is a step down a slippery slope to paranoia and authoritarianism, and that we as parents are enabling corporations to profit from this by selling us Ring doorbell cameras and backpack GPS trackers.
“Everybody loves their children, right?” Zuboff says. “We want them to be safe, and fear is a great motivator. Amazon wants you to have a surveillance device because it’s such a dangerous world. But where did this dangerous world come from? Trump painted a picture in his inaugural address of an apocalyptic American community, and for most people that’s not a good description of their lives. And that has really eaten its way into the center of our imaginations and the public bloodstream.”
Zuboff asserts over a a lengthy phone call that we need to push back against political rhetoric and learn to build trust with our children rather than surveilling them. Otherwise, she says, we’re essentially teaching them that privacy invasions are OK—and encouraging them to cover their tracks. “We should give our kids the opportunity to make promises and keep them.”
That’s a wonderful sentiment, but my rebuttal is that children just don’t have the life experience or wisdom to know what behaviors are acceptable, and that it’s just too easy for them to make bad decisions online, promises or no. My daughter can’t even make her bed reliably. What would she do if you dropped her into 4chan?
The rub is that monitoring your kids with any level of consistency is hard. Teen girls send more than 4,000 text messages a month (as of 2015), and that’s a lot of emoji and “kk” drivel to have to sift through. Most of it is harmless nonsense, and it’s easy to be lulled into ambivalence. As my kids have gotten older, my diligence has fallen off. Not out of trust, but due to laziness. In addition, now that my daughter is driving a car, my concerns about her safety have dramatically shifted.
Yet I have to remind myself that it’s still an important discipline. Last year I abruptly received a call from a middle school principal. Turns out my son had created a phony Instagram account for another (Instagram-free) student and was filling it with goofy pictures of him. It was fairly innocuous content, but it was a disturbing prank all the same. A third kid turned him in, and I had the unpleasant task of informing the victim’s unamused father that it was my child who’d done the deed.
As punishment, my wife and I took away my son’s phone away for two weeks. What else was there to do?
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