Is Taser's phone-monitoring product overparenting?

Taser International has announced a product that will allow parents to eavesdrop on their kids' phone calls, texts, and e-mail. For most families, says Larry Magid, it could be overparenting.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
4 min read

Taser's cell phone software interface Taser International

Taser International, the company that makes Taser guns to help law enforcement subdue unruly suspects, now has a product aimed at children. At CES, the company announced the Protector Family Safety Program--a series of products designed to help parents monitor and control what their kids are doing with their phones.

Lets parents listen in
Protector goes further than most parental control products in that it doesn't just provide a summary of activity--such as the incoming and outgoing numbers of people the kids call or text--but allows parents to listen to actual calls and read text messages.

Depending on how the product is configured, parents will be able to intercept all calls and messages to or from their child's phone, according to Steve Tuttle, Taser's vice president of communications. The series of products includes software parents can load on the kid's phone so that their own phone will, according to Tuttle, route "any inbound call, text, or e-mail. Anything that comes into the child's phone would actually be routed to the parent's phone." At that point, the parent can allow it, block it, send it through, listen in, or record the conversation. Parents can set a "favorites" list to let some calls and messages go through so, for example, the child can have unfettered and unmonitored communications with grandma or anyone else the parent specifies. Parents can also examine e-mail attachments--including photos--to help detect or prevent inappropriate incoming or outgoing images.

"We're trying any prevent damage coming in on the inbound, and at the same time it does the same thing coming out, so I can monitor what's being texted out by my child," said Tuttle.

The service, which will work on a variety of smartphones, will be rolled out later this year. To its credit, the service, said Tuttle, will not work in stealth mode. There is no way for a parent to hide the software from their children. Kids know they are being monitored.

While I can understand why a lot of parents would be tempted to use a product like this, I think it should be applied cautiously and only when necessary. It's true that this software could prevent sexting--kids sending out nude or partially nude photos of themselves--and could cut down on cyberbullying and other issues, including the risk of kids having conversations or exchanging messages with people who are potentially dangerous or annoying. But before parents employ this technology, they should try something far less invasive like having a conversation with their kids to review basic safety and etiquette issues and to ask their kids what they are doing with their phones and what problems--if any--they are having. I know that this won't work with all kids, but it will work with most.

I acknowledge that there are some high-risk kids who need very close supervision and monitoring, but several surveys have shown that the majority of young people have a pretty good idea as to what is appropriate and safe. Also, despite cyberbullying and other issues, kids are a bit more resilient than some adults give them credit for. Again, there are kids who could definitely benefit from monitoring or filtering products on their phones, but products like Taser's Protector are not a universal solution.

Also, there is a big difference between knowing who your kids are talking with and listening in on their conversation. When my kids would go out with friends, my wife and I would want to know who they were hanging out with, but we didn't follow them around or record their conversations.

Dr. Patti Agatston, a licensed professional counselor with the Prevention/Intervention Center of the Cobb County School District in Georgia, thinks that technology like this "would probably do more harm than good" for most kids. "The only place I can see this is with kids who are already exhibiting dangerous behavior, such as kids who are in gangs," she said. "In general, I don't see this as an appropriate solution for the risky behaviors that are generating headlines because it's still a relatively small percentage of kids who are engaging in those activities.

"Kids need to have some type of privacy, it's developmentally appropriate as kids get older," said Agatston. She added that "part of my fear is that this type of technology appeals to the type of parents who are already being too controlling in their children's lives." With these families, "kids will want to have nothing to do with their parents once they leave the home."

How about a hybrid phone/Taser gun?
Of course, Taser International could find a way to incorporate its other technology into this product as well. Why not make a cell phone that shocks and stuns a child whenever they do something inappropriate?

ConnectSafely.org, a Web site I help operate, has lots of advice for keeping kids safe with technology, including tips on cell phone use, cyberbullying, and sexting.