NPR ran an article today with the peppy headline: As Kids Go Online, New Tools For Parents To Spy.
My, doesn’t that sound promising?
It begins with the breathless revelation, “Before age 1 (ONE!), nearly half of kids play games or watch videos on a mobile device.” This is absolutely shocking to anyone who has not interacted with a baby in the last ten years. Tablets are bright, colorful, and have touch screens; babies like bright colors and touching stuff; and parents like to help their babies interact with the world. The idea that babies are somehow never, ever going to look at electronic rectangles is pretty strange, and if anything, I bet those numbers are low.
(To be clear, I’m not saying it’s good for little kids to be doing this all the time. That’s a whole separate conversation.)
Anyway, the gist of the article is that the Internet is dangerous and shocking and parents need software to block out the bad websites and watch their kids constantly but it turns out that getting that to really work is fairly difficult, and isn’t that sad.
Yes, of course there are things on the Internet that kids need to be protected from. The Internet shares that property with, you know, every other part of life. And yes, software can help with that, especially when they’re young. When I have children, I would indeed prefer that they not have to look at 843 million penises because they accidentally typed “dick” instead of “duck,” especially if said children are only seven years old.
But there’s a difference between taking some basic precautions and using 1984 as a parenting manual. Just listen:
Luma [blocking and spying software] lets you limit access by time of day: During homework time, just allow educational websites. During dinnertime, when there’s dead silence at the table, “you can press a button and it will pause the Internet. The kids have to look up and actually engage with their parents.” […]
Luma also lets you watch your kids and review every site they’ve visited. And that surveillance power is becoming common. Microsoft built Windows 10 to give parents a weekly browsing report. Apps like PhoneSheriff and TeenSafe let you remotely read your child’s call logs and text messages (even deleted texts).
Luma revamps the home Wi-Fi system. Using their smartphones, parents can see every wireless device attempting to use the network, block access and set levels of permission. Little Timmy just gets G-rated websites; Tina gets sites rated PG. […]
“I don’t trust teens. I was one once,” [mother Joy Wilson] says and laughs.
Wilson says she’d like to spy on her kids until they’re 18.
Doing this kind of thing to your children is – how can I say it diplomatically? – deeply misguided.
Yes, you could only allow educational sites during homework hours (assuming you’ve structured your kids’ lives to the point that “homework hours” are a thing). Or you could teach them enough self-discipline that they can work even when there are distractions around. Ten points for guessing which is more useful in the long run.
Yes, you could turn off the Internet during dinner to force conversation. Or you could teach your kids to engage with other people to their faces, and to listen when you say “No smartphones at the dinner table.”
Yes, you could try to block out anything objectionable your children will ever see. That way, in the very unlikely event that you’re successful, it’ll all be dumped on them at once as soon as they leave home. Or you could have a conversation – maybe even several! – about what content is out there, what is and isn’t okay, and why, and how they might choose to react. This process could conceivably lead to them someday becoming adults themselves.
And then there’s the spying.
If you have, say, a fourteen-year-old, then tracking every website they visit and reading every text message they send would be (deep breath) a really, really, really, really horrible idea. Let me grab a thesaurus … yeah, atrocious, that’s the word. Here’s why.
Growing up is a process of growing independent, of exploring, of learning what freedom feels like. If you know your parents are always watching, then that feeling of freedom is as dead as Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign. You never get the chance to make your own mistakes, to practice being an adult before you have to be one for real. You can’t even say what you want to your own friends without having to defend it later. You have to start censoring your own thoughts.
Or rather, that’s what would happen if any of this had the slightest chance of working. Because, as the article itself notes, any kid with a reasonably functioning cerebrum and a minimal desire for independence will find a way around the system.
How, you may ask? Hmm, let’s see. Your kid could:
- Find holes in the software. Any software flexible enough to let the Internet stay remotely usable, will also have holes, at least until somebody invents a strong AI.
- Access the Internet from a device you don’t control. There are over ten billion Internet-capable devices in the world, so this won’t be terribly difficult. A friend’s computer, a borrowed tablet, a Kindle Fire they bought for fifty bucks, even a school or library computer with holes in its defenses.
- Figure out secret codes to use when texting their friends, so you don’t know what they’re talking about.
- Communicate with their friends via other means, like payphones (for as long as those still exist) or passing notes on physical pieces of paper (for as long as those still exist).
Parents may point out that it’s their house, their rules, and their Internet connection, so they have every right to block or monitor whatever they want. This is true. Likewise, children have every right to resent and despise their parents, and cut them out of their lives as soon as it’s remotely feasible. Neither of these, however, is a good thing. It turns out that lots of things you have the right to do are not good things to do.
One last fun little quote from that article:
Another mom, Frieda Taylor, says spying is her right. “It is good. It should be done,” she says.
Asked until what age, she says without pause, “Until they get married.”
This is such a bizarre comment that answering it in full would take a whole separate blog post. I’ll have to content myself with asking: what if they never get married?
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks Dad doesn’t need to be Big Brother. I was immensely gratified to see that the top comment read, in part:
I can think of very little that would have caused me to hate, despise, and never again talk to my parents than to find that they were monitoring my every move, opening my mail, etc. The teenage years can be rough enough as they are. They don’t need you piling more stress and anxiety.
TALK to your kids. Get them to trust you and TALK to you of their own free will.
(Yes, I’m quoting a comment from a news article. The other six signs of the apocalypse will be arriving shortly.)
Look – there’s a balance between safety and freedom. There’s always a balance. Parents want to protect their kids, and they should. It’s their job. And the dangers are real, online and elsewhere. But some dangers are subtler than others, and a decade of feeling stifled and angry is not what I would call “safe.”
If your kids have the slightest curiosity about porn, they will seek it out, and they will find it, well before they turn eighteen. Short of locking your kids in the basement or brainwashing them Duggar-style, you cannot stop this. Period. What you can do is talk to them about what’s out there, what it means, how they should think about it, and what kinds of decisions they should make about it. Ditto violence, swearing, bigotry, and manipulative advertising.
Your kids are going to grow up, whether you like it or not. You might as well teach them how to deal with that.
I know all this, of course, because of my zero years of child-rearing experience, and the PhD in developmental psychology that I don’t have.