Do We Over-Monitor Our Kids, Just Because We Can?

“We are tracking our children’s every move, and they can feel it.”

“We are tracking our children’s every move, and they can feel it,” says lawyer and educator Elizabeth Small in the Washington Post. Small’s concern is that children do not have a space that is private, where every moment of their lives is not monitored and shared by parents, teachers and others.

Children are being observed and photographed at school, their computer activity is monitored by parents at home, and their cell phones are tracked by parents who want to know where their children are and what they are doing every minute of the day. An article in the New York Times says, “One danger of these technologies, of course, is that many parents will be tempted to overuse them, and in intrusive ways. A parent who constantly micromanages a teenager’s life — Why did you stop here? Why did you go there? — risks stifling the independence needed to develop into an adult.”

Small recounts a conversation with her daughter after the daughter was called to her school office. She was afraid that she was in trouble for something. Small asked if her teacher had spoken to her about anything, and her daughter said no, but she worried that cameras in the hallway had caught her whispering to a friend in line. Cameras? “Yes mama, there are cameras everywhere.”

While Small loves having the information about her children that she receives through their teachers’ online journals, videos and social media posts, she wonders if it is healthy to have so much real-time access to her children’s lives. “I also remember what it was like to be a student. I loved school mostly because it was a place I could be invisible from my strict family. School gave me the freedom to experiment with my identity,” says Small.

Some experts are concerned that children have little or no say over how much of their lives are monitored and shared. Danah Boyd, the founder of Data & Society and a visiting professor at New York University, said that sharing digital information can be a sign of trust and respect between people with close relationships, but that it can become an abuse of power in unequal relationships.

She said that when she was working with teenagers she was disturbed to find that the privacy norms established by parents influenced the children’s relationships with their peers, such as sharing their passwords for social media and other accounts with boyfriends and girlfriends. “They learned this from watching us and from the language we used when we explained why we demanded to have their passwords,” said Boyd. “And this is all fine, albeit weird, in a healthy relationship. But devastating in an unhealthy one.”

Parents want to protect their children and be involved in their daily lives; however, Small recommends that parents be “deliberate about giving them spaces where we don’t, even by accident, seek a window into their world, or a way to monitor their lives. Parents need to make sure they are giving their kids age-appropriate levels of privacy, and letting them know what information they are accessing.”