Should Parents Spy On Their Kids Devices | A Breach Of Trust Or A Parent’s Right?

It’s a generally accepted truth that, under the right circumstances, some rules are allowed to be broken.

Raising a child is a complex and ever-changing process, and there are times when parents have no choice but to rely on breaking a few of their own rules. For example, we encourage our children to never tell lies, but this doesn’t stop us from feeding them imaginative fabrications when it’s in their best interest. We make parts of their lives, such as Christmas or their first wriggly tooth, more colourful, and we avoid giving them truthful answers to questions that they don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand.

This isn’t the only fine line that parents are forced to walk. Many of us spend a lot of time teaching our children to value other people’s privacy. Is this another example of a rule that parents are allowed to break, or is it something that we absolutely have to uphold? Should parents spy on their kids? Is it an unforgivable breach of trust, or is it a parental right?

What Does It Mean For A Parent To Spy On Their Kids?

In the interest of clarity, spying on a child’s device refers to either actively looking through a child’s device without them knowing or consenting, or installing spyware that is capable of giving parents direct access to all content on the device: messages, photos, audio, keystrokes, pages visited, GPS locations, and more. It does not include parental control technologies that block access to prohibited sites and content, or that monitor device usage without capturing specific content.

According to a 2016 study conducted by Pew Research Center, a majority of parents will choose to actively check their child’s mobile phone history as opposed to utilising parental control technologies. Their polls indicate that 48% of parents regularly look through their teenager’s phone, including call history, text messages, and most visited websites [1].

How Much Privacy Should A Teenager Have?

Absolutes such as “never open the door when someone knocks” only work with very young children.

As they get older and begin to evaluate risk and exercise safe judgment, we slowly and inevitably entrust them with more responsibilities and freedoms. These freedoms may start off with training wheels attached, which we decide to remove once our children demonstrate enough skill and responsibility to function without them. As parental advice author, Michelle Icard, states: “when it comes to learning how to use any new tool, whether it be a pocket knife or a texting app, parents should be involved in teaching and monitoring safety – at first. And then as time goes on, parents should become less and less involved” [2].

Children do need mentorship and parental involvement, but spying has parents on high alert. It has you hovering over your child’s smartphone and waiting to catch them red-handed so that you can steer them in the right direction. Yet, in doing so, you risk preventing them from developing their own moral compass. There are some lessons in life that are best learned through embarrassment, guilt, or remorse – rather than through being told off by a parent [2].

Yet the rules surrounding Internet independence aren’t exactly clear-cut. While there may be a fairly unified idea of the age at which it becomes appropriate for a child to want to go to the bathroom by themselves and be afforded the liberty to lock the door, it seems that the topic of privacy becomes more confused and complex when it involves Internet-capable technologies.

This could be, in part, because there are so many variables. Age doesn’t always dictate maturity, and maturity doesn’t always guarantee trustworthiness. Furthermore, it’s not lost on most parents that even the most mature, trustworthy, and responsible young people aren’t risk-proof. Indeed it’s not just our children’s online actions, but the actions of the most depraved and dangerous people on the Internet that we have to consider.

Should Parents Spy On Their Kids Devices?

Having your child resent you seems like a relatively small price to pay for their protection. There’s little doubt that if it were as simple as choosing between having a content child that is at risk of harm and having an indignant child who is safe from harm, that the vast majority of parents would choose to forgo their child’s privacy in order to keep them safe.

Yet the reality is that it is far from being that simple. Why? Partly because risk does not always mean harm, but also partly because breaching a child’s trust can lead to grave consequences. Through losing your child’s trust, you can also end up losing their respect. This may motivate them to go to greater lengths to evade your watchful eye or cause them to actively rebel. Furthermore, there is now considerable evidence to suggest that there is a link between ongoing surveillance and the development of mental disorders.

Ongoing surveillance of children has media experts, child psychologists, and even the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada deeply concerned. They believe that a lack of privacy in a young person’s life can “undermine trust, promote secrecy, and hinder their ability to assess risk and develop independence” [3].

What Parents Should Know About The Importance Of Privacy

It’s not a case of allowing children total independence, but rather a case of allowing them to develop self-regulation skills and agency. These are core life skills that are essential to adulthood, and undermining or disrupting those skills can be dire. Recent research has demonstrated that children with inordinately intrusive parents are at risk of experiencing mental health issues such as withdrawal, anxiety, and depression. Mental health experts have referred to these as internalising behaviours [4].

Privacy is so much more than just something people value; it’s something that they have a basic right to. Social psychologist, Skyler Hawk believes that “the ability to experience privacy is probably a basic human need that transcends culture” [4].

Sandra Petronio, director of the Communication Privacy Management Center, goes even further than that; she believes that privacy is far more than just an important freedom for adolescents, but that it is their duty. “An adolescent’s main job is to individuate, to move away from being controlled by the parent. One very clear way they do that is in their demand for private space,” she says [4].

The only times when it’s lawful for an adult’s personal and private information to be accessed is either with their explicit permission or with a legal warrant. This teaches us something about how we can address the matter of whether or not parents should spy on their kids.

Essentially we need to ask ourselves if the invasion is warranted. Not just in the sense that you read a scary news article about an online predator, and now therefore feel it’s warranted for you to read every SMS or email that your child has ever sent, but warranted in the sense that your child has proven to you that they cannot be trusted, or they have broken a rule put in place for their safety. This is not to say that you cannot take other steps to monitor what is going on in your child’s social networks, or that you cannot take measures to evaluate or minimise risk – it’s simply a case of saying that you should not necessarily rely on spying on your child’s device as a first resort.

The Slippery Slope Of Spying On Your Kids

There’s no denying that privacy is a multifaceted and problematic social issue that has become increasingly prominent during the age of the Internet.

Every online interaction that we have, every question we ask Google, and every link we click on leaves a digital footprint. This data is collected by app and Internet providers and can be sold to corporations for tailored marketing, or used by Government entities to monitor suspicious or criminal activities.

Privacy and big data are both contentious topics. Some people believe that doing nothing wrong and having nothing to hide nullifies any plausible objection to such privacy intrusions, while other people argue that it’s wrong on principle; because every person is entitled to privacy.

The matter becomes all the more complex when it involves children. Yet, if we want our children to share in our ideals, should we not be committed to upholding them ourselves?

It is clear to see that in order to raise responsible, healthy, and independent young adults who have strong moral compasses and value privacy, we need to make sure that they are entitled to it themselves. By all means, parents should get involved and stay involved in their children’s online lives, but spying is never an appropriate substitute for ongoing communication, support, or education.

1. Pew Research Center, 2016. How parents monitor their teen’s digital behaviour.

2. Michelle Icard, 2015. Why I don’t monitor my kids texts anymore.

3. Adam Bisby, 2017. When does protecting your child become invasion of privacy?

4. Kirsten Weir, 2016. Parents shouldn’t spy on their kids.

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