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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
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
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 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.