Several years ago, I got a text from a parent friend. “It’s so sweet,” she wrote, “your daughter is sad about her project and mine is being so great comforting her.” Both 11-year-olds were in their respective after-school programs at different schools at the time, so I was puzzled.
When I asked how she knew this, she said, “Oh, I clone my daughter’s texts to my iPad and I read them all.” As if this was a perfectly ordinary thing to do. My child hadn’t consented to have a third party read her private texts (although she knew that her school monitored her school-based email and messaging accounts), and I wasn’t sure if her friend had consented either.
More than appalled, I was sad for both the kid and her parents. How much daily energy were they spending worrying about their kid, and how much of that worry was created just because we now have technology that makes text-by-text, minute-by-minute, footstep-by-footstep monitoring possible? Intrusive surveillance has become a parental rite of passage in America. But the parental panopticon is not a mark of maturity and responsibility but rather of paranoia, distrust, and devolvement.
From smartphones to schools to entertainment, parents can track the near totality of their children’s lives with ease. Share Location features come out of the box with any smartphone, and extremely popular apps like Life360 or Bark offer “enhanced” features such as driving monitoring and camera roll scanning for a small price. Unsurprisingly, the companies behind these apps collect an enormous amount of data about millions of teenagers and children; Life360 recently came under fire for selling it to data brokers that, as the Markup reported, have in turn sold info on children’s whereabouts “to virtually anyone who wants to buy it.” Family accounts on services from Netflix to Microsoft notify parents about kid activity by default. (Some, like Amazon, make it impossible to turn off parent notifications.)
Schools increasingly offer daily tracking of kids’ grades and assignment completion as well, via learning management systems with parent web interfaces. (The ClassDojo behavior monitoring system claims to be in use in 95 percent of US elementary schools.) Not only are these systems burdensome to teachers, they also create an expectation that parents will intensively monitor classroom performance. Responses to the harms of social media often suggest greater parental monitoring as a fix for algorithmic amplification of dangerous content to minors, as Senator Richard Blumenthal did this past fall when he asked Facebook (now Meta) to “end Finsta,” slang for a “fake Instagram” that parents don’t know about, by allowing more parental monitoring. If your child plays multiplayer games, you’re basically their main line of defense against online bullying and contact with problem adults on shared servers. Some parents also use in-home cameras to check on kids who are home alone, and many families set up their home to be able to efficiently monitor online activity. If you’re checking your child’s location multiple times a day, getting notifications when they turn in a school assignment or rent a movie, ghost-following their social media or game chats, and reading their texts, you’re more or less acting like the DHS goons in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. (But since you’re just one or two people, it’s probably costing you a vast portion of your daily life.)
It’s all too frictionless to get sucked into the parental panopticon: The simple, slick, and seductive interfaces are designed to make parents feel warm, fuzzy, and responsible about constant monitoring. A child’s circular avatar on the known map eases the heart-walking-outside-your-body anxiety that has been a part of parenting since time immemorial. When we check on our kids online and see that they’re safe, the designs can make us think they’re safe because we checked.
It’s easy to fall into when a child is first going into the world on their own—but should you be doing it for your 15-year-old? Your 20-year-old? Three years after the text cloning incident, my kid, by then a teenager, arrived home upset one afternoon, herself appalled. “Mom, my friend’s parents just CALLED HER and chewed her out,” she yelled, “because we were a block away from where she was supposed to be. We just went to a different café after school because the first one was crowded. They’re tracking her ALL THE TIME.” Also, a member of an online parenting group I’m in recently confessed that she was tracking her child away at college, without the young adult’s knowledge. It just felt good and alleviated the pain of missing her newly independent kid. The group was uneasy, but split on whether this was a violation. Where would it end? And why don’t we have an offramp?
Constant vigilance, research suggests, does the opposite of increasing teen safety. A University of Central Florida study of 200 teen/parent pairs found that parents who used monitoring apps were more likely to be authoritarian, and that teens who were monitored were not just equally but more likely to be exposed to unwanted explicit content and to bullying. Another study, from the Netherlands, found that monitored teens were more secretive and less likely to ask for help. It’s no surprise that most teens, when you bother to ask them, feel that monitoring poisons a relationship. And there are very real situations, especially for queer and trans teens, where their safety may depend on being able to explore without exposing all the details to their family.
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We need to switch to a paradigm of teen safety that empowers kids and sets them up to transition to internet and IRL independence. We need an online equivalent of Free Range Kids, the organization that encourages parents to let children do things on their own in physical space.
But we also need to relieve parents of the expectation that only their minute by minute vigilance can protect their teens from online and offline disasters. Ever-increasing individual parent monitoring has become an easy cop out for tech companies. Rather than fix extreme diet content on Instagram, say, Instagram can ask parents to take on the burden of monitoring what a teen sees on its platform. In a 2020 report called The Unseen Teen, Data and Society investigated how social media companies effectively avoid designing for the needs of teen users. We need to demand better, and not just for better community management, easier reporting, algorithms that don't push toward extreme content. Companies should treat teens with respect as a separate customer group, one that deserves their own direct relationship and not just tattling to a parent.
Perhaps more subversively, schools should treat teenagers, not parents, as their main client, and set up their systems accordingly. The parent should be a secondary user, with the focus on supporting the connection between teachers and students and allowing students to take responsibility for their due dates and work. You can do this by making less frequent updates the default setting, or by providing parents less detail, as starting points.
We need to stop accepting the sales job that tells us constant digital surveillance is just what we have to do. That means listening to teens, directly rather than surreptitiously, communicating clearly, and if at all possible not making them feel like prisoners whose compliance is more valuable than anything else about them.
After some getting over our disgust, my husband and I decided on a policy about our daughter’s texts: If we find out there’s a parent reading them (which has happened several times), we tell her that her communication with that friend isn’t private. She can do whatever she wants to with that information, including telling the kid. We tell her about the parent features offered in apps, and our choices about how to use them. (We stopped monitoring her Netflix account ages ago.) For tracking, we do share location among our family, but we have an agreement that it’s only to be used in an emergency or after multiple attempts to reach someone by text or call. We also share an unlock code, and we have a rule that you only unlock another family member’s phone in an emergency. Not being the all-seeing monitor means we also aren’t the adversary and we can work together on safety. Most of the time, we don’t know exactly what she’s doing—and we’ve learned that’s only increased her security and all of our freedom.
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