Many parents are using high-tech devices to monitor where their children are and what they are doing.
As a mother, "Anita" had always believed that she should let her children make mistakes and live with the consequences. But when her 16-year-old daughter showed signs of depression, the Rockville mother became alarmed. She installed a keystroke logger on the computer that would record everything typed, and for about two weeks she read her daughter’s instant messages. She learned that the teenager was planning to run away.
"I was just looking for signs of trouble," says Anita, who, like most other parents interviewed for this article, did not want her real name used. "It was a reminder for me that we needed to work much harder at things, and be more diligent in our supervision."
The family began therapy, the daughter did not run away and Anita stopped reading the IMs. Anita believes the spying was worth it. "It felt so much more serious and so much more horrible then than [it does] when I look back now," she says. "I still don’t like it, but I think it was the right thing to do in that situation." Increasing numbers of parents are monitoring their kids’ activities, communications and whereabouts—sometimes without their children’s knowledge. A generation ago, parental snooping was decidedly low tech, mostly limited to reading diaries, listening in on telephone calls and searching bedrooms. But parents and experts say the widespread use of cell phones, IM and the Internet makes it easier for kids to conduct their lives in private.
Technology also makes it easier, in some ways, for parents to keep tabs on their kids. For as little as $30 to $50, parents can purchase software that logs every keystroke, including e-mails, Web searches and passwords to Facebook and other social networking sites. Stealth-monitoring software such as PC Tattletale can take a picture of the information on a computer screen every few seconds and store it in a hidden location. Parents can play it back like a movie—all without the child’s knowledge. Cell phones come with GPS devices that can pinpoint the location of a telephone on a map. Similar tracking devices are available for cars. There are devices that can report if a car is traveling above a preset speed or is on the road after curfew. Car camera systems can e-mail parents about sudden braking and send them links to videos of unsafe situations in the car.
Attitudes about monitoring and privacy rights have changed as the use of GPS technology has become more widespread, says Cheryl Wieker, executive director of the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington. About five years ago, when GPS locators first came on the market and PEP leaders broached the subject with teens and parents, "everyone in the room was horrified by the idea" of tracking a teen with a GPS, Wieker says. Now, parents are used to it, and teens have warmed to it, sometimes using the devices to prove to their parents that they are responsible. Wieker predicts that five years from now, devices that report speed, location and sudden braking will be considered standard safety devices for teen drivers.
Monitoring devices can make it seem so easy that parents sometimes think they can let the monitor do the work. "If you put [a monitoring device in a car] and say, ‘I did my part,’ it’s an invitation to let [an active role in parenting] become too distant," warns Rob Guttenberg, parent education director for YMCA Youth & Family Services in Bethesda. The monitor is a tool, but it’s up to parents to ask the questions and discuss what they learn with the child, Guttenberg says.
But some parenting experts warn that although it is tempting to monitor teens closely, parents need to give adolescents room to make mistakes and solve their own problems. "Parenting teens is different; you move from being a ‘parent manager’ to a ‘parent consultant,’" says Patti Cancellier, PEP’s education coordinator. "It is allowing [teens] to make mistakes and live with the consequences of those mistakes that will make them more successful as adults." The exception is when parents suspect dangerous behavior, such as alcohol abuse or depression.
"It’s a concern for people—how to keep kids safe without cocooning them," says Karen Smith of Bethesda, vice president for programs at the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. "Parents in this county run the gamut from, ‘I’ve got to keep my child safe from everything at all costs,’ to ‘Don’t wrap the min bubble wrap; kids learn from making mistakes.’"
Though some experts recommend that parents monitor electronics, there’s no parental consensus on the issue. In a 2005 study by Cox Communications, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and NetSmartz, 49 percent of parents surveyed said they have software on their computers that monitors where their teenagers go online and who they interact with; 43 percent said they do not.
Many parents say they’re uncomfortable monitoring, spying or even asking too many questions; they want to respect their child’s privacy. "I always say, ‘I’m going to trust you to make the right decision. I have faith in you,’" says "Pam," a teacher in Rockville whose mother spied on her as a teen. "It’s all about trust."
Some parents may "have a false sense of the privacy rights of children," says Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who has teamed with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and the Montgomery County Police Department to bring cyber safety issues into the MCPS curriculum and to PTAs. "You are still the parent. We have an obligation to protect our kids because we, as adults, have superior knowledge," says McCarthy, who lives in Rockville and is a father of four.
Monitor and Tell
When it comes to the Internet, cell phones and other technology, most experts agree that parents should talk to their children about the dangers of cyberspace and install computer software to block objectionable sites. Many parent educators, tech experts and law enforcement officials also recommend that parents monitor children’s activities on the Internet. Some suggest requiring children to log their passwords into a ledger kept by the computer, or requiring them to "friend" a parent as a condition of setting up a page on MySpace or on other social networking sites.
"I don’t think surreptitious tools are necessary," says Arnold Bell of the FBI’s Cyber Crime Section, who recently addressed a group of Bethesda-area mothers known as the Wednesday Morning Group. "The best way to crack a password is to have [the child] give it to you."
That’s the policy a Chevy Chase mom says she adopted when her 13-year-old son opened a Facebook account last summer. "Laura" required her son to give her his password so she could log on as him and got her own Facebook page, inviting her son’s friends to "friend" her so that she could look at their pages. The rules for her son’s cell phone are similar—Laura must be free to listen to his voice messages and read the text messages he sends and receives. "It was 100 percent out there in the open [that] this was the way it’s going to work," says Laura, adding that her son’s friends don’t know she has access to everything he types. "If you aren’t clear and then you’re snooping, it feels like a betrayal."
Daniel Neal of North Chevy Chase gets an e-mail at 4 p.m. every day telling him where his 10-year-old daughter, Eleanor, is—or at least where her cell phone is. "I haven’t put a chip in her ear," jokes Neal, the founder and CEO of Kajeet, a Bethesda company that markets cell phones with parental controls.
But Neal says that knowing where the phone is does not necessarily equal knowing where the child is. "It’s not a panacea for tracking your child," Neal says. "You don’t want to have a false sense of security." Still, his market research found that the ability to locate the phone-and, theoretically, the child, was still what parents wanted most in a cell phone for their children. The cell phones include a tracking device that sends an e-mail if the phone is near a preset location—meaning it is near grandma’s house, or near the home of a friend the child is not permitted to visit. Parents also can go to a Web site that has a log of calls in and out, and what time the calls took place.
Eleanor knows about the e-mails; Kajeet phones get an automatic text message when the GPS service is turned on, and the phones get periodic reminders every few months, Neal says. That’s because Kajeet executives hope parents will discuss the technology with their kids. "I think it’s better to always have a dialogue," he says. Still, ultimately it is the parents who choose what controls are activated and whether they discuss them with children.
Don’t Monitor, Talk
"Pam," the teacher in Rockville, still remembers her mother spying on her as a teen. That’s why she has made a conscious decision never to spy on her 13-year-old son. "When I was in high school, my mom would actually follow me," Pam says. "She’d pop up and drag me out [of a party, the library or wherever Pam was with her friends]. It was very embarrassing." Pam would tell her mother that she was going on a bike ride with friends-the truth, she says. Her mother must have followed her stealthily, because she would recite the route Pam had taken and remark that the group had stopped at a 7-Eleven for a soda during the ride. "The message was always there: ‘I don’t believe you,’" Pam says. So she started lying, because her mother assumed she was lying anyway. Her mother searched Pam’s purse for cigarettes frequently, and at age 18, Pam started smoking. "It was like making her wish come true—she expects me to smoke, I’ll smoke," Pam says.