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This post is the final entry in a series of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years — in this post, my daughter Meaghan writes about her reaction to my surveillance. Part one in the series is here, part two is here and part three is here.
Last week, my dad wrote here about his experiences keeping an eye on me and my sisters while we were online, using keystroke-recording software, what amounts to “Facebook stalking,” and also following all three of us on Twitter and Tumblr. As a result of it all, he’s received a lot of feedback, most of which seems to be split essentially down the middle. Some people think what my dad did was the right thing — that watching over us on the internet was the responsible thing to do as a parent in this day and age — but others haven’t been so supportive.
In response, my dad and I both thought it would be a worthwhile idea for me to provide an account of my feelings about him “spying” on me.
For one thing, I don’t think spying is really the right word for what he did. Dad never hid his surveillance from me; he asked for my usernames and urls on various websites, and talked to me about what he was seeing. Which — as is to be expected for a twelve-year-old girl speaking to her father — often led to some embarrassing conversations, and I admit the rebellious teenager in me resented it.
Privacy is a tricky thing to define
Conversations and resentment like that are hard to avoid for parents. But when I was a frequent user on GaiaOnline, and even as I discovered Tumblr, I was always aware that my dad was paying attention. He’d check up on my Tumblog every so often, and if my url had changed, he’d ask me, and I’d give it to him. I rarely felt that I needed to hide my online activity from him (though I suppose I never really tried).
That said, however, I do understand where some of the backlash is coming from. Some parents are very strict about keeping an eye on their kids in regard to cellphone usage, visiting with friends, and dating, which can sometimes backfire on them. Alternately, some parents are not nearly as diligent, and they believe that freedom will keep their children on the straight and narrow of their own volition, which can also have unforeseen repercussions.
The concept of online privacy is a difficult one — even governments are still debating it and trying to pin it down, and it’s no different when it’s in the home. It’s understandable to see what my dad did with my sisters and I as a huge breach of trust, and as an invasion of our privacy. Definitely, there are facets of my online life and experiences I’ve had — or wanted to have — that I would have preferred to experience without my father’s supervision. And there have been times where I lamented that “my life is over,” and “you’re the worst, I hate you, get out of my life,” when my dad came to talk to me about what I was doing.
On the other hand, I think having him supervise — and knowing that he was supervising — helped me not only to stay out of trouble and behave appropriately for my age, but also fostered a certain amount of critical thinking about why my dad worried about some of the things I did.
A Panopticon phenomenon
It became something of a Panopticon surveillance phenomenon: by not knowing when my dad was watching, I policed my own behaviour and came to better understand what was good or bad, and why. It left me feeling much better about my experiences online knowing that my dad was there not only keeping me out of trouble, but also keeping an eye out for trouble that might be targeting me. I know that I never added any strangers on MSN or AIM or anything like that, but if I had, there would have been no worry in my mind that any predators or strangers could have taken advantage of me.
Having my dad watching me online never left me feeling like I was unable to do anything, and certainly nothing was ever blocked or password-protected. It wasn’t that I had my dad looking over my shoulder physically as I surfed the internet. The intent behind it was clear, at least to me: “Make mistakes and learn from them.”
I was invited to create my own borders on the internet, and it led me to make a lot of better choices than I might have otherwise. I found a community of writers that fostered my talent and put me on the path to cultivating a hobby I enjoyed. Through that, I found another community of fans that take part in the appreciation of books, movies and television shows that helped me to further my writing hobby. Being able to write my own rules when it came to the internet while still having the guiding hand of my father behind me allowed me the space to find what I was really looking for online: companionship.
All in all, my dad’s surveillance of my internet activities has not impacted me negatively in the slightest. I don’t know what my online experiences would have been like if my dad had been completely missing, or too involved in them — I do know that I appreciate what he’s done for me and my sisters. In a way, it almost feels like it’s a specific kind of affection: that my dad cares enough to find out what I’m doing online, but also cares enough that he trusts me to make the right decisions without hurting myself. I think that shows a level of parenting most children would be happy to have.