In 1994, when I was 13 years old, I did what I suspect many 13 year-old boys might do. I snuck into my younger sister’s room, found her colorfully-bound private journal, read it, dusted off my fingerprints, and smirked, knowing I now possessed information to get under her skin. It seemed like the best way to torment my sister, who didn’t deserve the heckling that ensued after I teased her about a boy she clearly liked. She’d devoted several pages to him in her journal.
Fast forward to 2013. I’m not sure how many students keep a traditional journal, but many students use social media and the internet to broadcast their thoughts by the day, hour, and even minute. Many students either don’t think their parents know what’s going on, or they think their parents are oblivious to belligerent online activity. Many parents are.
Given this fact, to what extent should parents monitor, curtail, or even spy on their child’s cell phone or internet use?
I’m not a parent, but as a teacher, I’m completely aware of the innocent and nefarious ways kids and teenagers use their digital devices. I’ve heard students talking about Snapchat, where they can take a picture of themselves then send it to a friend or acquaintance, with the file being supposedly self-destructing after 10 seconds. You can imagine the type of photos some reckless and hormone-riddled teens send to each other. Some students bully each other to the point of tragedy, described here by blogger Caitlin Kelly over at Broadside. Then there’s Twitter and Instagram, tools many teenagers use to supply the world with endless streams of narcissistic drivel, trash-talk, and “selfies.
On the other hand, students engage in positive online communities relating to their interests. I’m thinking about my students who are self-described “nerds,” using social media to connect with other anime or gaming aficionados. “
Here’s some hypothetical scenarios to consider:
- Imagine you’re the parent of a 15 year-old boy and suspect drug-use, bullying, or other reckless behavior. Your son has left for the afternoon to hang out with some friends at the bowling alley, and, surprisingly, he left his phone on the kitchen counter. Would you search through your his cell phone records or Twitter feed without he or she knowing it? What would you do if you found incriminating evidence?
- Imagine you’re the parent of a 13 year-old girl, and you’ve been in a year-long battle with her over how she dresses. Despite your best efforts to keep her from dressing in what you deem as racy attire, you suspect her exhibitionist streak is manifesting itself online. While she heads to living room to complete some algebra homework, you notice her laptop is open and the screen seems to show a picture that can’t be your daughter in a skimpy bathing suit. Except that it is, and you sneak into her room and scroll down to find other photos more fit for a 21-year old aspiring model. What do you do?
- Your child has just received his driver’s license. You require him to check in whenever he gets to his stated destination, but you’re suspicious that he isn’t always where he says he is. You’re also aware of small GPS tracking devices that can be affixed to cars. Do you install a device, to keep secret tabs on where your teen is headed, given his new freedom?
A couple years removed from college, I helped a former sociology professor with field research for her book. I interviewed parents about their own surveillance. After conducting and recording 8-10 extensive interviews, it became apparent that those parent-child dynamics based more on trust, versus spying and surveillance, seemed to spawn healthier relationships. At the time, the ubiquity of cell phones was on the verge of manifesting itself, but the prevalence of digital tools in our lives wasn’t as intense as it is 8 or so years later. There are certainly new challenges and considerations for parents, regarding the choices about access and surveillance.
As parents and would-be parents, I’m wondering how you might respond to the scenarios above. Or do you–would you–not allow a teen to have his or her laptop? How about cell phones–at what age should a child have a phone? What restrictions or monitoring do you–or would you–employ?