The Ethics of Digitally Snooping on Teens

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SnoopI’m torn.

Should I spy to learn what is happening in my child’s world on the computer and phone?

Or should I back off and trust that his safety and behavior online is pretty similar to offline? How closely should I monitor my teen’s digital life?

I’m not alone. Parents of tweens and teens with smartphones ask themselves the same thing, dreading the day when they might get a phone call from another parent: “Do you know what your kid is texting to my kid?”

Oh, no. I don’t know. Just as I don’t know about every face-to-face exchange in class, at the movies or at the pizza joint.

But should I?

We want to do our jobs well as parents, and plenty of educators and law enforcement officials exhort us that it is our duty to know what our kids are doing digitally for appropriate reasons like safety and security. Parental fears tend to focus on three big worries. Sexting. Cyberbullying. Strangers. And monitoring services such as TeenSafe play on those fears by offering, for a monthly service fee, to capture texts, even deleted ones. It is possible to monitor without the teen’s knowledge.

“If you are not paying close attention to this part of their life, you are not fully parenting,” said Rawdon Messenger, chief executive of TeenSafe.

But many of us also feel a little guilty and intrusive as we read through our teens’ messages and texts. Surveillance violates their privacy, creates a climate of mistrust and may clue us in to the personal (but normal) private lives of adolescents we may have been better off ignoring.

And given the sheer quantity of messages sent and received each day, any real monitoring would be on the level of the NSA. It is exhausting, time-consuming work — if we can even get around the passwords, secret sites and ephemeral messages they set up to cloak their communications.

Back in the day, our parents would simply pick up the other phone extension to listen in on conversations or put their ear to the door. But now, Snapchat photos and videos disappear within 10 seconds, unless you do a screen grab. Yik Yak and Kik, which have both been implicated in cyberbullying cases, grant anonymity to users.

Recently, Colorado police became involved in a case involving more than 100 students in a small town who had exchanged naked photos of themselves. The photos were hidden in a photo vault app, which might have appeared on smartphones as a calculator app. Authorities there weighed whether to prosecute any of the students for being in possession of child pornography.

I shudder to read stories like that — not only because of how vulnerable our children are to the evil forces in the world that can so easily take advantage of their naivety, but also because of what we know about young adults: they are often impulsive, dismissive and unaware of the longer-term consequences of their actions — or in this case, their photo sharing.

So of course, given those concerns, one should monitor teens, even if that means doing so without their knowledge. Right?

I find myself nodding in agreement with Messenger of TeenSafe.

“If that’s the only the way you know your child is all right, and you are trying to keep them safe, we think it’s justified to not tell them,” he said.

But other experts say secretly reading texts is an overreaction.

A better option, they say, is to set guidelines for smartphone use and talk openly about the dangers of sexting and other things friends may be doing. Monitor with their knowledge, they suggest. But if parents have a reason to be concerned — a teen has an abusive boyfriend or is depressed, for example — then closer and stealthier surveillance may be warranted.

I asked my son, who is 13, how parents should monitor kids messaging.

“Not at all,” he yelled, before running out of the room. So much for a meaningful exchange and keeping open the lines of communication.

He is on a bunch of apps, including Snapchat (which TeenSafe doesn’t capture). When I snoop and look at his “snaps,” they disappear, which elicits a crescendo of complaints from him because that means he missed out on the one-time view of the ephemeral message.

Tough luck, I say. It’s not my fault that my monitoring removes the message.

When I told Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership, about the exchange, she sighed. Kids have appropriated a lot of authority in the tech space that they shouldn’t have, she said.

But Simmons also has written about the positive social aspect of social apps like Snapchat for teens. Stories about extreme situations such as the one with Colorado students “play more to parental fears than the reality of being with an adolescent.”

Even talking about these examples as cautionary tales might not resonate with teens, who don’t see themselves in the same situation or can’t imagine that they could face such serious consequences for what they think of as no big deal.

As my teen said when I told him about kids sharing nude photos in Colorado, “Why would people do that?” Then he ran out of the room.

Simmons’ advice: Talk to them about their use in positive and negative ways. Don’t only focus on all of the dangers and all of your worries. Take the time to find out what they like about it. Have them set the app up for your phone if they are willing.

What parents shouldn’t do is monitor simply to learn more about their increasingly-recalcitrant and private teen, she said. (But it’s oh so tempting!)

“You can’t do an end-run around the process of your child separating from you,” she said. “There’s no app for that.”

Surveillance of children brings up some of the same issues that it does for monitoring adults, said Irina Raicu, the Internet ethics program director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

“Do we want to risk everyone’s privacy for the sake of those who are causing harm,” she asked.

I’m still torn. But for now I have struck a balance: light monitoring, with my teen’s knowledge if not his permission. If something worries me, then I will beef up my rounds.

SNOOPING GUIDELINES

What to think about before you snoop on your teen:

1. Think about your child. Is he or she basically fine or is something happening that is alarming in your child’s life?

2. Talk to your child about monitoring. Don’t stealth monitor.

3. Decide ahead of time how you will react if you see something you don’t like. If it’s not a big deal, let it go.

—Source: Larry Magid, founder and CEOof ConnectSafely.org

MONITORING APPS

There are several apps to monitor a teen’s digital life: TeenSafe — See your teen’s sent, received and deleted SMS and iMessages. It also captures Instagram, Kik Messenger, Whatsapp, browsing history and more.

My Mobile Watchdog — A parental dashboard for monitoring all of a teen’s mobile activities.

MamaBear — A private family communication hub that also allows parents to monitor social media use as well as incoming and outgoing text messages.

Canary — Alerts parents when a teen is texting or taking a phone call while driving.

(Source: TNS)