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Summary:

I spent close to a decade using a variety of surveillance tools to spy on, stalk and otherwise monitor my three daughters’ online behavior as teenagers. Am I proud of that? No. But I learned a lot.

This post is the second of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years. Part one is here, part three is here and the final instalment is here.

When parents stoop to spying on their children, it’s usually because they are afraid something terrible is happening that they don’t know about — and often they turn out to be right. In my case, I chose to do it partly as a way of learning how to use the tools and partly as a kind of research project into my own children and their online behavior. And I learned a lot.

In the first part of this series, I talked about how reviewing some keystroke-logging software in the early 2000s — designed primarily for businesses to monitor their employees at work — lured me into eavesdropping on my three kids over the course of a decade, using a variety of tools that at times made me feel like I worked for the National Security Agency.

Tracking the online behavior of our first daughter didn’t reveal all that much, apart from the usual teenager angst, but things were somewhat different with our second daughter — in part because she was a different person, obviously, but also because the way she used the internet was different.

As I tried to point out in my first post, I am well aware of the ethical quandary that I dove into when I started this monitoring process, and if I wasn’t already aware of it when I started, I was regularly reminded of it whenever I brought the topic up with friends and fellow parents. Many of them accused me of acting like the secret police, and of not trusting my daughters enough — and yet, at the same time, I thought I could see in some of them a secret jealousy of my abilities, since they all felt the same parental desire I did: namely, to watch over our children in every way possible.

The dawn of the social web

weed joint

Our first daughter was kind of an experiment, since I was new to the tools available, and the social web was also relatively new: there was no Facebook yet, and no Twitter, and blogs were only just becoming popular with a small group of hardcore nerds. LiveJournal was fairly prominent — although my daughter didn’t really use it — but the really big deal, especially for teenagers, was instant messaging via AOL and MSN Messenger and ICQ (anyone remember them?). As far as my oldest was concerned, that was the entire internet.

Apart from one brief mention of marijuana experimentation at a friend’s party, trolling through my daughter’s IM conversations and emails via the aforementioned keystroke-logging software didn’t produce much of interest. There were no secret messages to older men arranging to meet them at a shopping mall, or any of the other bogeymen that parents have been taught to fear when it comes to the internet. And of course, the fact that it was boring was very reassuring.

Our second daughter used instant messaging a fair bit, and I continued using the keystroke-logging program for that purpose, as well as some other tools that pulled in email, etc. But as she moved into her teenage years, she started to spend less time on instant messaging and on childish websites playing silly games, and more time on another category of sites that I had never heard of before: sites that when I look back on it were like early prototypes of social networks — but aimed exclusively at teenagers rather than broadly targeted ones like Facebook or MySpace.

Habbo Hotel and Gaia Online

nsa-logo-Habbo Hotel was one example of this phenomenon: a site that used cheesy eight-bit graphics from some old handheld computer game to create a world where residents of a giant hotel could set up their own rooms for a variety of purposes — including music, games, or just chat — and then invite people into their rooms and interact with them. At one point, Habbo (which was owned by a Finnish company) was a huge internet traffic story, and my daughter and her friends spent hundreds of hours a month on it. In some ways it was the Facebook of its day.

The hard part for me and my NSA-style surveillance program was that Habbo also proved to be very difficult to effectively monitor using most of the tools I had — except maybe the one that took random screenshots at regular intervals, which used up a lot of resources (my brother-in-law actually blocked Habbo Hotel at the router level so that his teenaged children wouldn’t go there, and eventually had to shut the internet off at night because they still managed to find a way around his block).

The most interesting aspect of my daughter’s internet use was the amount of time she spent on a site called Gaia Online, which as far as I could tell was devoted to games and socializing primarily around Japanese anime TV shows. But my keystroke-logging program picked up something fascinating after awhile, which I admit I wasn’t expecting: My middle daughter, who hadn’t really shown any interest in writing for school purposes, was spending hours every day writing interactive fiction on Gaia Online — long and involved, emotionally complicated stories based around characters from anime shows.

An unexpected insight

gaia online

Gaia Online was one of the first sites I came across that engaged in this kind of interactive fiction, where one writer would start a story and then others would add to it or take it in a different direction — or suggest different plot twists for the original author. This is almost exactly what Wattpad does now — the Toronto-based startup financed by Khosla Ventures allows authors (including some prominent ones like Margaret Atwood) to upload unfinished work and get feedback from readers.

The upshot of all this was that my snooping revealed not so much the questionable behavior I had been afraid of finding, but a whole side of my daughter that I had never really expected to find — a side that voluntarily spent hundreds of hours writing fiction and interacting with friends around that fiction. And while my daughter hasn’t become a famous writer (yet), she still carries on this behavior today, only now it occurs on Tumblr and is based around TV shows like Doctor Who and Teen Wolf. In a sense, this has helped to shape how she interacts with media as an adult, which I find fascinating.

This revelation made me feel even more torn when it came to my surveillance of her: On the one hand, I still felt bad for invading her privacy — something we have talked about since she stopped being a teenager — but I was also grateful in a sense for being able to discover this other side of my daughter, one that was filled with talent and a love of language and creativity. Does that make it worth all the snooping? That’s hard to say. I wouldn’t really wrestle with that question directly until I started to apply the same surveillance approach to our third and youngest daughter.

Tomorrow: How — and why — I decided to stop snooping on my kids.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Shutterstock / Vlad Star and Shutterstock / noporn

  1. Why were you snooping? Why weren’t you supervising their online activities. That’s part of something called parenting.

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    1. Thomas Krafft Thursday, August 8, 2013

      @ThePhoneMan, people can’t literally watch their kids 24/7, but some monitoring software can help you spot-check the situation from time to time. You or I might not use these tools, opting for other monitoring methods instead, but there are clearly good reasons to consider this option. I believe the author made clear that this “snooping” was balanced along with everything else conscientious people do to keep their kids from getting into trouble – which actually is part of something called parenting.

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    2. Um, his snooping is “supervising their online activities.” Should he sit in the same room at all times that his kids are using the internet? How is that any different than using a key logger?

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  2. What if your daughter had been using this time online to cheat in her classes, steal from you or the illegal sale of narcotics – would you still feel bad? Stop allowing your jealous neighbors and their misguided adult logic to impact how you monitor the development of your children’s value systems (which often times don’t fully develop for years and even then can easily move in the wrong direction)

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  3. There are a few things that trouble me about the surveillance you practiced, Matthew Ingram.

    1) i was once a teenage girl, and it makes me cringe to think about a parent spying on me this way. Not because I was getting into trouble, but I was still trying out new ideas, on myself and with my friends. I can imagine being banned from the computer if my parents found out that I was reading about the Problem of Evil or reading about contradictions in the Bible. A lot of what I read and debated online (and in school during down times with my friends) about when I was 14 was contrary to the religion of my parents.

    And I can imagine others who might have other differences from their parents – sexual and gender identities, for instance – that would lead to parental involvement in a very negative way. I think here of a younger gay friend of my sister’s who was forced to come out to his parents for looking up something on gay marriage online; and his family wasn’t thrilled, to put it mildly.

    The internet is great because it houses support and information for those that might not get it at home, and surveillance like yours, in many cases, would interfere with that type of self-discovery.

    It’s not that I think there should be no restrictions (blocking of certain sites, okay), but I do think that some freedom is necessary for personal growth, especially for young adults.

    2) Not all kids have great relationships with their parents, and maybe this has to do with #1. Parents can use information against their kids – as in my gay friend’s case, and parents themselves can be bullies and mock their kids’ interests and friends.

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    1. Hear hear! My parents would’ve gone batsh*t crazy on me if they had found out that I was an atheist since age 12 or that I believed eating meat was unethical before I moved out and became vegan. They were conservative, I was liberal. We differed in every way, but since they were violent and easily provoked, I used the internet as my safe house. Had they started to monitor me, I would have just used Tor anyway.

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  4. I wonder how the author would feel if he had discovered that his children were spying on _his_ Internet activities?

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    1. Mathew Ingram Thursday, August 8, 2013

      I would feel that I got what I deserved I suppose :-)

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  5. What an awful thing to do.

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  6. Giri Fox, RightScale Thursday, August 8, 2013

    Brave to admit to having done this, given the awkwardness of the topic.

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  7. Now that you have outed your snooping, what do your daughters think? Do they feel betrayed? Do they know yet?

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    1. Mathew Ingram Friday, August 9, 2013

      Yes, we have discussed it and they understand why I did it. I don’t know that that they like the fact that I did it, but we have come to terms with it.

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  8. Dan Szymborski Friday, August 9, 2013

    Frankly, I think this is terrible. There’s a difference between monitoring your children and seriously invading your children’s privacy. You didn’t have any reason to be seriously concerned about something your children were involved in, you just went on a fishing expedition to find out things about your children that you were either unwilling or unable to find out about in a frank, up-front manner. These weren’t 5-year-olds you were monitoring, either.

    This is worse than helicopter parenting. This is black helicopter parenting.

    I’m way too old to have had to worry much about keyloggers or my parents bugging my phone (while PCs were around, I’d probably have to have been the one to install it for them as computers weren’t ubiquitous at the time. But if I had found out that my parents had done this while a teenager, not because of serious, real, concerns that I was involved in drugs or violence or improper relationships, it would have seriously impacted my trust with them, both as a child and as an adult.

    Rather than be amazed that your daughter has a hobby of writing fiction, something you found it from invading her privacy, you should be more curious as to why she didn’t choose to reveal that to you. Maybe it was personal for her. Maybe she wanted something for herself that her parents weren’t involved in. Maybe you didn’t ask. Children are not property – they need a lot of guidance and a lot of help while growing up and active parents, but they’re also individual people, with their own value and their own questions growing up that they need to figure out on their own but, especially as they get older through the teenage years, are entitled to some security of their private thoughts and feelings, because they’ve developed into their own people, not simply a spinoff from you.

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  9. Nobody is jealous of your “abilities” anyone with 10 minutes and access to google can do this. That look you mistake for jealousy is people judging you as creepy and feeling pity for your daughters.

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  10. Why not publish confessions of a child molester too? Can Matthew give us readers ONE reason why he didn’t tell his children what he was doing and why he thought it was right? It’s the surreptitiousness that’s so disturbing.

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