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Snooping on your kids: How I felt about my father’s online surveillance of me

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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

Private keyboard

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

Privacy, eye, data

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.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock users Lightspring, Denis Vrublev and Sergey Nivens

40 Responses to “Snooping on your kids: How I felt about my father’s online surveillance of me”

  1. Jessica Anderson

    Me and my 8 year old son Jesse making the X-1
    After watching the mars landing he asked me if we could make something like the “Mars curiosity” also… I thought about it for a second …Then I said sure why not! Even tho I did not have NASA’s billion dollar budget. Who am I to tell an 8 year old you can’t do something because it’s too hard!

  2. Guesty McGuesterson

    I wonder what my parents would have thought if they saw me as a kid almost immediately reading things like “the anarchist’s cookbook”, cypherpunk forums, anonymous remailers and onion routing, and in general seeking out ways to anonymize my own activity, circumvent censorship, and also snoop on what the rest of my family was doing.

    In short, I pretty much sensed immediately the value of not leaving a trail for others to follow, following trails left by others, and getting around barriers, and I wanted all the power and advantage inherent in all those things. Playing silly games, writing about my feelings and chatting with friends seemed incredibly boring and pointless to me compared to matters like those.

    Yes, I saw the dark corners of the internet. I learned a lot about the world that way too. I don’t think I was harmed at all by that. Maybe others would be but I handled it just fine.

    That was back in the mid 90s when we first got internet access. I think I absolutely drew the correct conclusions about what the internet was all about, and I would have resented any attempt by parents to reign any of it in.

  3. dfooter

    Though it is not for me to judge either Meghan or her father (being a parent is hard enough without a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking), I think that a key issue is being missed in the focus on “spying”. My concern is far broader, in that the kind of surveillance practiced by Matthew conditions children to be unconcerned about surveillance in general, and to overvalue risks that are negligible. The best analogy is the school my children attend. We live in an affluent semi-rural suburb with an excellent public school. Violent crime in this area is non-existent. The community police station is across the street from the school. And yet the entire school is surrounded by a high fence, and for all intents and purposes is on lockdown. I attended the same school in the ’70s (with the county crime rate far higher) and there was not a single incident. And yet now, with the crime rate far lower, the lockdown mentality has taken over. This adds no meaningful security and yet instills a fear of others and the outside world in our kids. Matthew’s “spying” is an understandable response to not wholly illusive fears, but it the effect on our kids of such surveillance is not negligible either, justifying in them a fear that is often out of proportion to the potential threat. There is a balance her, but I am wary of the encompassing nature of Matthew’s oversight.

  4. This is total garbage. Clearly the dad, in response to criticism, wrote this article as (or at best, with) his daughter in an attempt to show that there’s no victim in what he’s done. The last sentence of the 6th paragraph was not wordsmithed by a teenager, because even the best teen writers use a different, more direct, less standardised way of structuring their sentences.
    Furthermore, the thesis/antithesis framework the whole thing is laid out in does not “fit” in my mind with someone writing about a very personal experience. I would expect examples, accounts, feelings boiling over through the subtext.

    My parents didnt install key loggers on my computer, nor did they limit what aspects of the human condition I was allowed to stumbled upon. That’s why I can spot such vain and factious blogshit like this a mile away – but i suppose its also why I’m able to read such crap in the first place!

    The proof will be whether this article goes up without “moderation” (censorship). I doubt Mr Ingram could handle an open commenting system.

  5. JohnDoe

    Well written article but not very convincing. The argument seems to be that it protects from being taken advantage of and that by having her father’s guidance she found an enjoyable hobby.

    On the threat of predators it should be noted that the threat is statistically very remote and I see no reason why children cannot be informed of the dangers and educated about how to protect themselves. Assuming a need for active surveillance reflects a level of paranoia that one wonders why you would ever be let out of the house.

    On the cultivation of a hobby I simply do not understand the relevance. I do not understand how surveillance by your father facilitated this, though perhaps your point is simply that it did not hinder your enjoyment and exploration of the internet.

    Personally I would not have tolerated it. I value the freedom to think independently and not to subject my thoughts to a review board. Perhaps I’m curious about sexuality and wish to explore the subject without my parents knowing that I might be gay. Perhaps I’m a socialist who doesn’t want his right-wing parents to punish him for thinking the “wrong” things. Perhaps I’m a christian who doesn’t want to be mocked by his atheist parents.

    There are so many thoughts that I want to consider in the secure knowledge that these thoughts are my own to be contemplated without fear of discovery or oversight. In all likelihood I’ll turn out like my parents anyway: I’m playing with loaded dice after all. But privacy, TRUE privacy, is an essential part of independent thinking and discovering your own individuality. For me, the sentimentality of knowing your dad cares would never be enough to give that away.

  6. patrick r

    A 12 yr old incorporates panopticon surveillance phenomenon into her writing? Great piece but I call BS, Meaghan did not write this, this is waaay too sophisticated.

  7. brandensilva

    Your dad has an interest in keeping you safe and teaching you to avoid hazards. After all, that’s what father’s (or good parents in general) do.

    I hardly think you can contrast this with government spying as I don’t think the effect would be the same. They don’t exactly love you and are not looking out for in a way that your father would. A lot of the times its for their best interests and not exactly a lesson to you if they were to intervene. I think you’d agree it doesn’t have the same affect that you experienced if your father simply said, “The government is watching you.” vs “I am watching you.”

    With that said, I do think that there needs to be some government intervention to prevent violent criminal activity from flourishing on the internet while protecting privacy and freedom of speech.

    • Meaghan Ingram

      I honestly don’t think it did. I’ve complained to friends, jokingly, about how my dad has kept an eye on all of my online activities to some extent, but every time I’ve also made sure to explain to them that I didn’t — and don’t — mind. My older and younger sisters might have other things to say about that, I don’t really know, but I’ve never felt negatively about Dad watching us online. For a long time, I thought that was what all parents did, a necessary part of online life, like passwords and coding. It was just my dad trying to protect me.

  8. Mathew, that’s terrible. Mainly because you can spy on her at your home PC, but you cannot control her all the time. She can buy a cheap cell phone, go to Starbucks and browse whatever she wants. So maybe one day you will learn she has a secret account to which you don’t have access, where she is getting the thrill and what you getting is just an image of a perfect daughter.

    • Adam Howard

      Josef, that’s certainly a possibility, but assuming a kid spends a significant fraction of her time at home, she’d probably trip up and access one of her secret accounts there. Depending on the amount of surveillance she’s under, she’d probably be caught.

      I’m not speaking about Meaghan in particular, it could be anyone. Living a digital double life and keeping it undetected is going to take a lot of overhead and discipline, especially when you’re being watched.

  9. Eleven years ago, my parents installed keylogger software without my knowledge to gain access to my password-protected online journal where I wrote about coming out and my fears about telling my Christian fundamentalist parents that I was gay. They confronted me and we haven’t spoken in about ten years. Not all online surveillance is done with good intent and sometimes children in hostile environments need online privacy as a refuge and system of support.

  10. Wow Meaghan I can’t decide what impressed me more, your sophisticated take on the whole surveillance issue or the way in which you expressed your thoughts. You write beautifully! Next time my 11-year-old son complains that I’m expecting too much from him, I’m simply going to send him the URL for this post. (And yes, 11-year-old me would have found that behaviour irritating in the extreme, but for some reason that’s not going to stop me. Parenting is weird.) You and your dad both deserve a ton of credit for this project.

  11. 24tnt42

    Thank you, Meaghan, for writing about how it felt to have your dad tracking your online activities.

    Your article helped clarify that you were always aware of your dad’s supervision and that he allowed you to make your own choices, rather than controlling everything you did or setting the boundaries himself.

    I was surprised and touched that, because of the way your father handled his supervision of your online activities, it felt like “a specific kind of affection.”

    It must be gratifying for him to know that, after all of the energy and soul-searching he put into this particular aspect of parenting, you feel he did the right thing.

    You are well on your way to elevating your writing from hobby to professional pursuit, should you choose to do so.

    • Meaghan Ingram

      You’re welcome! Thank you for your comment :)

      I felt it was very important that readers know that my sisters and I didn’t learn of the surveillance after it had stopped. We were always aware of it.

      And it really does feel like affection! As my mum always says, the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. Having Dad pay so much attention meant that he cared about our online lives. If he hadn’t cared at all, couldn’t be bothered to learn about what I was doing on the internet, I think that would have led to more of the type of online behaviour he was trying to avoid. :)

      Thank you very much for your kind words! I’d love to write professionally :)

  12. Erika Lang

    Well written, great insight Meaghan. You certainly take after your father in the writing department. I wish my daughter saw my influence in the same light. Perhaps she does, but I have never asked her, maybe it’s time I should. You have a great dad, and I’m sure he is proud of you. Well done.

    • Unless you have a really good reason to not trust your daughter’s online activity, why should you waste your life stalking her? Besides, why do you have to have someone actively following you, so that you become aware of what morality is and why moral scruples are “wrong”? Shouldn’t this come from ourselves.

      Anyway, you should definitely talk to her. It must be quite awkward and embarassing to know your mother is stalking you, but you can’t protect your privacy or do anything about it…