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Snooping on your kids: Sometimes surveillance defeats the purpose

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

In the first two installments of this series, I talked about how I started eavesdropping on our two younger daughters’ behavior online — out of a somewhat misplaced desire to protect them from a variety of imagined dangers — and how I learned something about them along the way, despite misgivings about my surveillance activities.

Our youngest daughter proved to be even more of a revelation in some ways, both because of the way the social web has evolved since I started my family spying program about a decade ago, and because of how her reaction to my monitoring made me rethink what I was doing.

In many ways, the evolution of our daughters’ use of the web has been a kind of microcosm of the broader changes in the internet over the past decade: When I started paying close attention to what our oldest was doing online as a teenager (she is 24 now), it was primarily instant messaging — which now seems like an ancient relic of the web, thanks to the rise of texting and apps like SnapChat or Instagram — as well as some websites where you could play rudimentary games or do puzzles. So a simple keystroke-logging program allowed me to eavesdrop quite easily on most of her activity.

The rise of Facebook and the social web


By the time I started monitoring our second-oldest daughter and her online behavior as a teenager (she is now 19), she spent some time on websites with games or jokes, but she also started to spend a lot more of her time with sites and services that were more like prototypical social networks: virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel, where the engagement with other users was far more important than the actual surroundings or the simplistic games that were played — and sites, like Gaia Online, that offered the ability to write interactive fiction with others who were passionate about the same topics.

In much the same way, we’ve seen the internet evolve from being just a series of static websites through the dawn of what used to be called “Web 2.0” or the interactive web, to the rise of full-fledged — and globe-spanning — social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Interestingly, all three of our daughters have used Facebook (which started to become popular just as our oldest reached teenager-hood), but their usage waned substantially as they grew older — and it is also a much smaller focus for our youngest daughter than it was for our other two at the same age.

In some ways, they seem to see Facebook as almost a necessary evil, like email is to an older generation, rather than something they want to spend a lot of time on for their own purposes. My colleague Eliza Kern has written about this phenomenon, which I think is fairly widespread with younger users.

Facebook gives way to Tumblr and Twitter


If our middle daughter started the trend in our family of being more interested in sites with a social element rather than just games or other activities, our youngest continued it — beginning with sites like Club Penguin as a child, and then moving on to Facebook and others as she became a teenager. What was interesting about her use of the web, however (as opposed to the usual teenager behavior like texting) was how quickly it started to center around Tumblr and Twitter, and how that more or less stymied my attempts to monitor her online activity the same way I had with her older sisters.

While keystroke-logging software worked with a one-on-one IM conversation, it was of no real use for texting (I didn’t really investigate whether there were similar tools for phones, because that seemed a little too draconian even for me) and it didn’t help much with trying to keep an eye on what she and her older sister were doing on Tumblr or Twitter either. All I got was a mess of text without any kind of reference point for who or what they were talking to or about, which didn’t help much.

And so I did what I’m sure plenty of other parents have done in a similar situation: I more or less gave up on the automated snooping and turned to stalking, by friending them on Facebook and following them on Tumblr and Twitter. The difficulty there, of course, is that following someone is a very difficult thing to keep hidden from the person you are following — it becomes obvious as soon as you do it, unless you create a secret account under a pseudonym just for the purpose, which seemed like a lot of effort to go to.

I decide to stop stalking my kids


My daughter’s response to this was fairly predictable: She hated the idea that I was somehow looking over her shoulder while she interacted with her friends and other fans of the TV shows she talked about on Tumblr and Twitter, and I’m sure she felt much like I did when my parents would sit in the dining room and watch my friends and me trying to have a party in the living room — like a giant wet blanket had been dropped on her online life, smothering any chance of spontaneity. When I asked her to change her online name because it seemed a little offensive, she rolled her eyes and complied, but I could tell I had crossed a line.

Both her response and that of her older sister — who also spent most of her time on Tumblr, live-blogging Teen Wolf and Doctor Who and other favorite shows with an online community of fans — somehow made me feel worse than I had felt before, when I was just anonymously snooping on my daughter’s IM conversations. The idea that even my virtual presence on Tumblr or Twitter might prevent them from being able to express themselves or interact with their friends (some of whom they have never met) in an authentic way made me feel like I was robbing them of one of the most powerful features of the social web.

I had become increasingly concerned over the years about the broader invasion of privacy that my monitoring represented, and had also come to the conclusion that all of my surveillance was achieving very little — since it didn’t actually help me understand what they were going through or where potential trouble spots might lie.

But it was the interference with their development as fully functioning social human beings (whatever that means in an online context) that really gave me pause, and finally made me step back from all of my monitoring.

Now I am back to crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, like most parents have done since the beginning of time.

Monday: One of my daughers talks about what it was like to have a snooping parent.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Flickr user Gabrielle Colletti and Shutterstock / ollyy

16 Responses to “Snooping on your kids: Sometimes surveillance defeats the purpose”

  1. i think you’re awful for spying on your kids but even worse is using the michael j. fox movie poster as an illustration for the current teen wolf. insult to injury, man.

  2. man oh man would i have been screwed had my parents done the same thing in my teenager years… luckily i knew all about key-stroke loggers and all the other simpler stuff you mentioned, deleted internet history, etc. and parents didnt know anything about computers.. but i still turned out perfectly fine (college degree, healthy life for the most part, etc)

    spying on your kids is not the way to go, imo… raise them well and you’ll be fine.

  3. You are very lucky that your daughters have forgiven you. They have legitimate grounds to be very, very angry with you, not least because you now write about your long-term and systematic invasion of their privacy as if it were so many shades of grey. It isn’t. You say that you’re not proud of what you did, but that’s hardly enough: you ought to be actively ashamed, both of what you did and of this article.

  4. linneaarmstrong

    It’s difficult to know what the right thing to do is in these instances. If our kids are digital natives, we’re digital parenting pioneers, and we’re going to make mistakes no matter which route we choose. I’ve tried to keep in mind my own intense desire for privacy at that age while educating my children about responsible online behavior. (Don’t give out too many identifying details; don’t tell strangers where you live, and never friend them on Facebook; don’t be stupid enough to post compromising photos, and don’t let your friends do it either; apart from the fact that you’ll be in huge trouble with us, that’s child’s play compared to being in trouble with the law or not getting hired. That stuff follows you around forever; deleting it does not remove it from the Internet. My husband works in network security and has talked to them about the practical implications social media behavior has on their futures as well.)

    My son (16) has never shown much interest in social media. He has a Facebook because a school club he belongs to uses a secret group as its info portal. No Tweeting or Tumbling for him, though (he visits a few fannish Tumblrs, but doesn’t have his own). My daughter (14) has all three, but we’re connected on Facebook only (interestingly, she follows me on Twitter, but not vice versa). The latter two accounts are public; I don’t need to follow her, but I have neither a desire nor a need to at this point. A couple of years ago, it was a different story. I suppose I’m a discreet chaperone now.

  5. Having done a lot of study on the issue, and having done a lot of spying as well, I can say that those who criticize you or think you are a bad parent or showing an unbelievable amount of naivety and ignorance. If they haven’t dug into what little Timmy or Suzy is doing on Facebook, Tumblr, Vine, Kik, etc. then they are a fool. And that’s not counting the full out porn sites, or the illegal movie sharing sites for the softcore stuff. Being ignorant isn’t a badge of honor.

  6. John H.

    Hey, there are lots of tools on the market that will help you snoop on the smartphones of your daughters! Search for them. Sure you would need to get physical access to phones for few hours, but being a family that should not be a problem.

  7. I understand that you love your daughters and what it was that you were trying to accomplish, but, respectfully, I do not agree with your method.

    Essentially, you wanted to get to know each of your daughters better so you would be better capable of protecting them. That is fully understandable and I commend you for your interest in them. However, getting to know your daughters better is not accomplished in separate rooms via a computer screen. It is accomplished by spending time together, one-on-one, doing things together. Reading printouts is no substitute for spending time together.

    Everything you were after (and are after) can be had by spending time together.

    I enjoyed the following article, and you may also:

    • Why do you assume he didn’t do all that plus the snooping? Your response is fairly common from those to lazy to learn the technologies and the dangers the kids face with them.

  8. My mom spied on me and my brother for years with our friends. Granted, she spied more on me under the concern that I was a girl and the oldest. But, it really helped me learn valuable lessons, even though I hated it when she was doing it. I knew she monitored my activity and from discussion about what she considered to be okay and not okay, I learned a lot about what it takes to live in society and relate to all kinds of generations, not just my own. I was also able to learn a greater respect for myself when it came to boys and the behavior I should expect from them. It was a learning process for both of us, not always pleasant and sometimes downright painful. But, it worked for us and taught me respect for myself, respect for my family and Im sure I made less mistakes because of it. I fully intend on spying on my kids when they are old enough to be on the internet.

  9. I’m surprised that it took you so long to realize that stalking your kids is wrong. Kids learn by example. I didn’t realize it at the time, but if there’s one thing that I will be forever grateful of, it’s the amount of trust my parents had in us that we’d eventually do what is right.

    My 13yo daughter gave me the password to her gmail address for practical reasons but I’ve never checked in on it without her asking first and, barring extreme issues, probably never will.

  10. Great insights. I’m sure if my parents had allowed us on the internet, there would have been some kind of monitoring; however, I’m not so sure it would have been “spying”. My teenage son has a facebook that I set up for him and my email is one of the emails that his accounts are linked to. I randomly check his facebook and found typically teen boy behavior that I’m not happy about yet I’m not going to make a big deal about it either. My motives are about safety and concern for my child. The whole monitoring is more about being aware of our children and what they do, being connected to them. I did a lot of sneaky things as a teen that had nothing to do with technology and I’m sure that kids are going to continue to find a way to get around parents. Can’t wait to see what your daughter’s perspective is.

  11. Jens Lapinski

    In all of your years of spying, have you prevented anything bad from happening or learned something about your daughters that was helpful to them?

    Or was is just a waste of time?

    • If you read the entire series, you can see that I did learn some things about my daughters, and I think it actually strengthened our relationship. As for preventing anything from happening, that’s harder to say.

  12. Anonymous

    You should be ashamed of yourself. If you think you have to spy on your kids to protect them then you are not doing a good job as a parent. Talking to you kids about the dangers of the Internet is the way.

    • Dave Jensen

      You can talk to your kids about the Internet, and see and drugs until you are blue in the face. For many youth, those are just words and they will test the waters for themselves. Sure, and it all starts with talking… but as the saying goes “trust but verify”.
      When a daughter is showered with praise from an older man, she tends to ignore the words of her parents in short order.
      If just talking worked for you, and consider yourself very blessed. But don’t judge the writer for actually verifying.