Snooping on your kids: Sometimes surveillance defeats the purpose

This post is the third of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years. Part one is here, part two is here and the final instalment is here.

In the first two installments of this series, I talked about how I started eavesdropping on our two younger daughters’ behavior online — out of a somewhat misplaced desire to protect them from a variety of imagined dangers — and how I learned something about them along the way, despite misgivings about my surveillance activities.

Our youngest daughter proved to be even more of a revelation in some ways, both because of the way the social web has evolved since I started my family spying program about a decade ago, and because of how her reaction to my monitoring made me rethink what I was doing.

In many ways, the evolution of our daughters’ use of the web has been a kind of microcosm of the broader changes in the internet over the past decade: When I started paying close attention to what our oldest was doing online as a teenager (she is 24 now), it was primarily instant messaging — which now seems like an ancient relic of the web, thanks to the rise of texting and apps like SnapChat or Instagram — as well as some websites where you could play rudimentary games or do puzzles. So a simple keystroke-logging program allowed me to eavesdrop quite easily on most of her activity.

The rise of Facebook and the social web


By the time I started monitoring our second-oldest daughter and her online behavior as a teenager (she is now 19), she spent some time on websites with games or jokes, but she also started to spend a lot more of her time with sites and services that were more like prototypical social networks: virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel, where the engagement with other users was far more important than the actual surroundings or the simplistic games that were played — and sites, like Gaia Online, that offered the ability to write interactive fiction with others who were passionate about the same topics.

In much the same way, we’ve seen the internet evolve from being just a series of static websites through the dawn of what used to be called “Web 2.0” or the interactive web, to the rise of full-fledged — and globe-spanning — social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Interestingly, all three of our daughters have used Facebook (which started to become popular just as our oldest reached teenager-hood), but their usage waned substantially as they grew older — and it is also a much smaller focus for our youngest daughter than it was for our other two at the same age.

In some ways, they seem to see Facebook as almost a necessary evil, like email is to an older generation, rather than something they want to spend a lot of time on for their own purposes. My colleague Eliza Kern has written about this phenomenon, which I think is fairly widespread with younger users.

Facebook gives way to Tumblr and Twitter


If our middle daughter started the trend in our family of being more interested in sites with a social element rather than just games or other activities, our youngest continued it — beginning with sites like Club Penguin as a child, and then moving on to Facebook and others as she became a teenager. What was interesting about her use of the web, however (as opposed to the usual teenager behavior like texting) was how quickly it started to center around Tumblr and Twitter, and how that more or less stymied my attempts to monitor her online activity the same way I had with her older sisters.

While keystroke-logging software worked with a one-on-one IM conversation, it was of no real use for texting (I didn’t really investigate whether there were similar tools for phones, because that seemed a little too draconian even for me) and it didn’t help much with trying to keep an eye on what she and her older sister were doing on Tumblr or Twitter either. All I got was a mess of text without any kind of reference point for who or what they were talking to or about, which didn’t help much.

And so I did what I’m sure plenty of other parents have done in a similar situation: I more or less gave up on the automated snooping and turned to stalking, by friending them on Facebook and following them on Tumblr and Twitter. The difficulty there, of course, is that following someone is a very difficult thing to keep hidden from the person you are following — it becomes obvious as soon as you do it, unless you create a secret account under a pseudonym just for the purpose, which seemed like a lot of effort to go to.

I decide to stop stalking my kids


My daughter’s response to this was fairly predictable: She hated the idea that I was somehow looking over her shoulder while she interacted with her friends and other fans of the TV shows she talked about on Tumblr and Twitter, and I’m sure she felt much like I did when my parents would sit in the dining room and watch my friends and me trying to have a party in the living room — like a giant wet blanket had been dropped on her online life, smothering any chance of spontaneity. When I asked her to change her online name because it seemed a little offensive, she rolled her eyes and complied, but I could tell I had crossed a line.

Both her response and that of her older sister — who also spent most of her time on Tumblr, live-blogging Teen Wolf and Doctor Who and other favorite shows with an online community of fans — somehow made me feel worse than I had felt before, when I was just anonymously snooping on my daughter’s IM conversations. The idea that even my virtual presence on Tumblr or Twitter might prevent them from being able to express themselves or interact with their friends (some of whom they have never met) in an authentic way made me feel like I was robbing them of one of the most powerful features of the social web.

I had become increasingly concerned over the years about the broader invasion of privacy that my monitoring represented, and had also come to the conclusion that all of my surveillance was achieving very little — since it didn’t actually help me understand what they were going through or where potential trouble spots might lie.

But it was the interference with their development as fully functioning social human beings (whatever that means in an online context) that really gave me pause, and finally made me step back from all of my monitoring.

Now I am back to crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, like most parents have done since the beginning of time.

Monday: One of my daughers talks about what it was like to have a snooping parent.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Flickr user Gabrielle Colletti and Shutterstock / ollyy