Monitoring vs. privacy: Where are the boundaries?

I found a very disturbing recent article by Linda Shrieves in The Orlando Sentinel (“Parents take extreme steps to monitor teens”, August 29, 2004):

When 15-year-old Casey Shea logs on to her computer to chat with friends every day, her dad strolls through the room periodically. He isn’t spying on her. Instead, he’s watching for signs of trouble. And Tim Shea refuses to feel guilty.

For some Baby Boomer parents, these are the days they swore would never come — the days of snooping on their teenagers. Worries over drug use and teenage sex come with the territory, of course. But the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School created a new wave of worry. Schools began searching backpacks; parents began searching their kids’ rooms. And everyone began scanning the Internet for signs of trouble. Even parents once reluctant to invade their teens’ privacy have gotten the message. Be aware of what your child is doing or suffer the scorn that was heaped on the two Columbine killers’ parents.

My first reaction to this excerpt was that I don’t believe it — it’s utter hogwash and a blatant rationalization of what I would view as intolerable behavior. If parents are spying on their teenage children, it’s not because they are worried about them turning into Columbine killers: it’s because like many parents they are feeling their teens withdrawing from their parental controls and becoming more secretive, a normal and probably necessary part of learning how to become an independent and confident adult. And they are reacting to that in the worst possible way: by tightening the screws and trying to impose even more control over their teens. I don’t think that’s good parenting. I also think the strategy is doomed to failure from the outset.

It’s easy to spy
Just as today’s teens have gone high tech, so have their parents’ spying devices. Parents can buy software that monitors their kids’ computer use, gadgets that record their phone conversations, or global positioning satellite devices that report how far and how fast a teen is driving. Window alarms can alert parents when a teen has slipped out of the house. Spend enough money and you can even watch teens with tiny video cameras the size of sugar cubes. “We’re a teenager’s worst nightmare,” says Robert Brown Jr., manager of the U-Spy Store in Orlando. “Probably one-fourth of our clientele are parents trying to monitor their kids.”

People who once swore they would never read their daughter’s diary or search their son’s dresser can now snoop without incurring the guilt that comes with opening a diary or rifling through drawers. At the spy store, Brown watches as parents wrestle with their ethics. “I can sense a little guilt in their eyes, but I can also see that they want more peace of mind than anything,” Brown says. “They’ll do whatever they have to do to keep their kids safe.”

Is this about “keeping their kids safe”? As a parent myself, I understand that it’s difficult not to worry about teens. But what worries me more is the message that any parent resorting to such techniques conveys to the teen: “I don’t trust you. I don’t believe that you are intelligent enough or responsible enough to refrain from doing something stupid. I don’t even believe what you tell me about what you are thinking and doing — in fact, I am convinced that if I don’t spy on you 24/7, you will be up to know good and will probably do something stupid or illegal.”

Does that sound to anyone at all like a message likely to encourage communication with your teen and responsible behavior? I don’t think so.

Tim Shea never took the “no-snooping” vow. “I assume my kids are as devious as I was, and up to the same shenanigans that I was,” says Shea, 54, of Orlando. Shea and his wife, Cheryl, monitor Casey when she sends instant messages to her friends, though it’s not always easy. “I have a general sense of what’s going on, however,” Shea says. “I can tell when I walk into the room, if she starts closing boxes, she’s afraid I’m going to see something.”

“Afraid I’m going to see something”? No kidding. I wonder how he would feel about his daughter reading all his mail or email, or listening in to his telephone conversations. This man isn’t a parent — he’s a prison guard. Does anyone remember Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984?

Casey knows her parents are keeping tabs on her. “It only bothers me when they keep standing behind my shoulder and keep looking, even when I’ve told them what it’s about,” she says. When Casey prints out her instant-message conversations and leaves them in the printer, he reads them. And when she leaves her cell phone lying around, he occasionally checks the incoming and outgoing numbers. He already knows her friends’ cell phone numbers because he demanded them when Casey got her phone. Casey seems resigned to her parents’ vigilance. They’re hard to fool, she says.

That’s what I would expect a probationer to say to her probation officer: “No, I don’t mind you spying on my every move at all”. It bothers her. You know it. I know it. And she knows it. The only people who don’t seem to get it are her parents.

Some parents fear they’re crossing the line into unfair intrusion by snooping on their kids. There is a danger, some psychologists warn, because high-tech monitoring doesn’t feel like prying. “You sort of know you’re violating something when you pick up something that says `diary’ and has a clasp around it,” says Chuck Huff, a psychology professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. “Sometimes the technology distances you from the effect of what you’re doing. You don’t feel quite so guilty looking at the output of the GPS as you would looking out the front window on the porch to check on your teens kissing.”

Psychologist Robert Schwebel cautions parents to think twice before installing the latest monitoring system. “When you snoop, you diminish the trust,” he says. “You’re teaching snooping.” The real answer, he says, is old-fashioned. “Monitoring children is fine,” Schwebel says. “That means knowing who they’re with, asking them where they were, making sure that things add up.”

In other words, do whatever you can to encourage trust and open communication with your teenage children — don’t spy on them — that will inevitably have the opposite effect.

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1 Comment

  1. This is probably the best article about parents and teens that I have ever seen by a psychologist who is also a parent himself.

    He is exactly right. If parents don’t trust teens, then teens will start to lie and sneak around.

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