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Time to end the digital 'arms race' of parental spying?

The CBS Evening News series "The Secret Lives of Teens" asks whether parental spying on teen Internet use is an "invasion of privacy or smart parenting."

CBS Evening News series

I caught CNET Editor at Large Brian Cooley on the CBS Evening News report last night, "The Secret Lives of Teens." In the second installment of this three-parter, which featured a tug-of-war between a daughter and her mother concerned about her risky online behavior, Cooley observed that, "This is just the return of the Cold War, with different players. Instead of the U.S. and Russia, it's Mom and Dad versus Joey and Bill." Cooley talked about parental control technology but added that, "In the end, this points back to the parenting relationship, and it moves away from technology when you really have to make a difference in their cannot rely on software."

I agree with Cooley's conclusion. Online safety for teens is a complex issue that cannot be covered in one blog post, but the CBS Evening News series gave me a lot of food for thought. They posed the question, is parental spying on teen Internet use an "invasion of privacy or smart parenting?" and I wish the CBS series had given more consideration to the possibility that digital spying is a misguided parenting practice.

Internet safety isn't just about technology, but the public nature of online communication brings a whole new set of challenges home for parents and adolescents. Teens have always had "secret lives," but they weren't shared with the general public until they went online. A computer in the home is still a relatively new portal for outbound and inbound communication with the rest of the world. This complicates the issues of friendship, gossip, bullying, dating safety, potentially predatory sexual interest, and other issues that have always come with growing up.

I believe that the technological generation gap between kids who grow up with online identities, and over-35 adults who did not, will be a defining gap of our time. The younger generation cannot afford to ignore the fact that what they post online will be viewed differently by adults, including parents, employers, and others. What teens see as trying out a new identity online may be viewed very differently by adults outside their social circle. Earlier this year I blogged about a teenage robbery suspect shot and killed by police, who had expected to encounter heavily armed resistance during the raid because they had seen Facebook photos of another suspect posing with guns.

The Strickland shooting is an extreme example, but I completely empathize with parents who are worried about the real-world implications of teens posing in sexual, violent, drugged, or drunk scenarios. Whereas our own stupid teenage behavior remained relatively private and ephemeral, today's teens are on display for the world, and creating many unfortunate digital "permanent records" that will, fairly or unfairly, persist into the future.

The first segment in the CBS series was all about high-tech parental spying, using software "controls" that allowed a Mom and Dad to read their 16-year old daughter's "e-mail, instant messages, and Web page postings. Using one of many available software programs, they can do everything from capturing all the Web sites she surfs to seeing every keystroke she makes on her computer--grabbing her passwords--so they can log into her world. They also get alerts for certain keywords, such as 'beer, bitch, boob, cheat, smoke, steal, whore and so on.'"

I am very concerned about online safety but I am opposed to such spying. I do consider information posted on sites such as MySpace and Facebook to be "public" and fair game for parents to check in from time to time, but I do not condone hidden keystroke capture.

The wisest common-sense advice I have found on this topic is Linda Criddle's article, "Why 'Parental Contols' Won't Work, but Family Safety Does." Criddle advises:

"The phrase 'parental control' is negative, pitting parents and their children against each other. Nobody wants to be controlled, least of all youth trying to find their own identities and gain a measure of independence. The phrase is also offensive to many parents who don't want to control their children; they simply want to help them stay safer online."

She adds, "Internet safety isn't something you can effectively impose on anyone over the age of ten."

Interestingly, the second segment of the CBS Evening News series backed up Criddle's view to some extent. Talking to a family whose now-18-year-old daughter was engaging in risky behavior online and off (she disappeared for two days, presumably before she was 18) it became clear that it was her parents' real-life concern and ongoing discussion (aka nagging) that affected her behavior, rather than any specific technology the parents had employed.

The third segment is tonight. I'll be interested to see how they wrap up the series with a look at real-world stalking that has online connections.