Is Surveillance the Best Way to Protect Children Online?
7.17.12 | Last month, The New York Times reported on the “prying parents” debate surrounding children’s safety and the ethical issues of digital surveillance—which has become a booming business for technology companies.
Times writer Somini Sengupta posed a central question: “Is surveillance the best way to protect children? Or should parents trust them to share if they are scared or bewildered by something online?”
Sengupta found the answers varied among parents she interviewed. One mother, Jill Ross, opted for subtle surveillance by subscribing to a YouTube channel her 16-year-old daughter uses to post “mundane teenage banter.” Ross chose not to discuss the videos; her daughter also said nothing, but allowed mom to keep watching.
Mary Cofield offered her 15-year-old granddaughter an Android phone with full internet privileges under one condition: She gets full access to the teen’s digital world. Cofield uses a tool offered by uKnowKids.com that sorts through her granddaughter’s social media sites and texts, flagging inappropriate language. It offers a dashboard of the teen’s digital activity, and even translates digital shorthand into words Cofield can understand. Cofield is careful not to bring up what she learns about the teen’s personal relationships, so as not to compromise her granddaughter’s trust.
“Being privy to that information and not using it is also difficult,” she told the Times. “If I did that, she would definitely go underground. I would be hopping on her every day.” Some parents say that safety outweighs privacy rights, and that a breach of trust is necessary when it comes to protecting children online.
[T]he best way to protect children online is to discuss the issues and teach them how to help themselves. Ultimately, surveillance is no replacement for digital literacy.
– Emma Llansó,Center for Democracy and Technology
“Sometimes crossing the line of privacy is very necessary. We as parents must remember that we are held responsible for what happens in our homes,” wrote Ronnie and Lamar Tyler in The New York Times Room for Debate discussion on tracking kids’ digital lives.
The Tylers, who run the website Black and Married with Kids, say that regardless of whether parents regularly monitor their children’s digital footprint, the key is to let children know that parents reserve the right to check their online activity at any time.
“The bottom line is this: If we’re forced to choose between privacy or safety, we’ll choose safety every time,” they concluded.
According to the Pew Research Center, the Tylers are not alone. A recent study found that two-thirds of parents check their children’s digital footprints, and nearly 40 percent follow them on Facebook and Twitter. While friending or following is an open way for parents and children to engage with their children online, kids can block parents, deactivate services, or converse with friends using coded language that may confuse parents.
Software companies have been catching on to the rising demand of surveillance devices, providing stealthier ways for parents to supervise or snoop, depending on the tool. For example, a smartphone app can alert parents if a child is texting while driving. Security companies Symantec and Trend Micro offer computer software that detects when a user creates a new social network account. Antifraud software company Infoglide recently introduced MinorMonitor, which Sengupta compares to uKnowKids because it, too, combs children’s online profiles and alerts parents to “signs of trouble.”
I find myself cheering for the app that tells the parent if a child is texting while driving (I have a friend whose husband needs to use that app on her). The risks of texting and driving are simply too great (and are shared by everyone on the road). But the father who can read every one of his child’s texts? Tougher — but then, I read (or can read, I typically don’t) every e-mail sent or received by my 10- and 8-year-olds.
A mixture of contributors—including parents, a technology expert, and a media professor—weighed in on the issue of privacy in the NYT’s Room for Debate. National Parent-Teacher Association President Betsy Landers described the internet as “a different paradigm,” and said online monitoring should not be compared to, say, reading a child’s journal.
“Anything that parents would not condone or allow in the real world should be forbidden online. Setting rules may not be enough,” wrote Landers. “A perceived lack of trust lies not necessarily with the children, but rather with the yet-to-be-navigated waters of new technology.”
Lynn Schofield Clark, an associate professor of media, film and journalism at the University of Denver, and author of the forthcoming “Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age,” favors dialogue over prying.
“Higher-risk children may need more monitoring, and it’s great when children view that monitoring as a sign of their parents’ or grandparents’ concern for them,” she wrote. “On the other hand, if children interpret monitoring as a sign of parental mistrust, they’re more likely to circumvent the monitoring.”
Author and former Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose argued that young children in particular need parents’ guidance online. He wrote:
Sometimes, particularly if they are very young, we will need to pry if we feel the threat to their safety demands such measures. In the end, however, the only real answer lies in enlisting the help of our children in monitoring themselves. We must be open with them about what things we believe are harmful and how they can best avoid them. At the same time we must let them know that we trust them to make good decisions, even as we also let them know that, until they reach an age when they are capable of taking care of themselves, we will be looking over their shoulders, with love.
While there remains a fair amount of discussion as to how much is too much when it comes to monitoring children’s digital lives, no app or software can replace the need for dialogue and digital literacy education.
“Hopefully, an icon in the corner of the screen telling a child that monitoring software is turned on will encourage them to raise the issue with their parents,” wrote Emma Llansó, an attorney who works on online child safety and free expression issues at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Because, as we’ve learned in study after study, the best way to protect children online is to discuss the issues and teach them how to help themselves. Ultimately, surveillance is no replacement for digital literacy.”
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