Popehat Parenting Poll: Monitoring Texting and Email By Middle Schooler?

My eldest is about to start seventh grade at my old school. He now has his mother's used iPhone, and texts quite a bit.

We monitor internet use on the phone (we have a program that sends a weekly email — he's gotten busted for watching YouTube after lights out, but not for content), and reserve a right to review his email and texts. My wife exercises this right — the boy ducks his head and rushes from the room, embarrassed, probably because he's texting a few girls and has started to realize they're flirting with him.

So: how much do you monitor tech usage by that age group? After this question, I will go back to decrying the NSA.

Who is Popehat's Censorious Asshat of 2015?

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. D G says

    Children have very few privacy rights from their parents. They gain privacy rights via self-emancipation.

  2. sta says

    I sure do monitor my kids email and text. There are tons of weirdos out there that take major advantage of kids' innocence. We have a tv, the kids even watch it unsupervised (lol) but while I trust them, I don't trust other people. Learned that from a friend who had a daughter stalked on FB.
    It's our job to parent and protect. I tell my kids, you can have all the freedom you want. Turn 18, get a job, move out. FREEDOM!
    But as long as I'm paying for the phone, the computer, the electricity and the clothes on your hinny, get used to "1984 Momversion".

  3. Katie says

    I grew up on BBSes, started them when I was 12. AFAIK I was not monitored by my parents in any way. Sure, it wasn't all the crazy of the internet, but it certainly wasn't always kid-friendly. :D

    I don't think I would unless I had reason to believe they were doing anything extra bad. The way people learn to make good decisions is by making decisions.

  4. Zac Morris says

    There are "rights", and there are "Rights".

    I can only speak from the point of view of having an excellent memory of my youth. I had a computer at the age of 16 (in 1984), and had my parents been as invasive as modern parents, my life would have taken a decidedly different, far darker/worse, path.

    Some may argue that times were different in 1984, romanticizing that things were "safer" then. HA, nothing could be further from the truth! At that time there were NONE of the modern age-based safeguards we have in place today.

    Growing up a closeted gay youth in Alabama, to parents that were far from ready to deal with something like that, my 300 baud modem was my gateway to the WORLD!

    Did I make mistakes? Few actually, and all of of those were embarrassments vs. real Mistakes.

    So I have to say a resounding, NO, do not directly monitor your children's communication with the outside world. This means texts, emails, AND internet usage. Instead talk to your kids about the dangers they may run into, and how best to avoid *AND* deal with those dangers. Help them learn about and come to understand Risk. Let them have some method of Self discovery that belongs to them completely. If you don't, they will find a way, and that way will be FAR more dangerous than the Internet.

  5. JanetC says

    It's understood by the 13 year old that we, his parents, can swoop in anytime and read his emails, texts, etc. That being said we haven't yet but if our spidey parent sense tells us we should, we'll be on it.

  6. Fadeway says

    "To know which rights a man will respect in a position of power, look no further than the rights he gives to his own children."

    -Fadeway's 17.3th Law

  7. htom says

    Don't have kids so didn't vote. Observing nieces and nephews, and cousins' children … those who were closely monitored seem to be less cautious and more gullible. There's an old saw about "experience coming from recovering from mistakes"; if your parents prevent you from making mistakes, you'll still make them, only later with bigger consequences.

  8. Careless says

    Other: the world had better end inside the next 6 years before I have to deal with this

  9. tim@tshea.net says

    I can only imaging the negative consequences from my parents if they caught me watching gay porn and talking to other gay people on BBSs when I was a teen. I'm thankful they didn't have the ability to monitor at the time.

    (for the record – although it took them some time – they've eventually accepted it)

  10. Jill Brockus says

    My children are in their mid-twenties now. But when they were youngsters, I read everything I could, commented on it to them and their friends. Not for content so much, but to drive home the point that nothing on the computer is private. Think – you are in public! It is a hard lesson to teach, but I thought it was necessary.

    As with anything else with kids, I learned a whole lot, trying to stay one step ahead or playing catch-up!

  11. Xenocles says

    It's true that you get experience from mistakes, and that experience is the best way to learn (other things being equal), but you have to survive the experience to learn anything useful from it. The kids get scrapes every day, but they just have to trust me that being run over by a car is bad, for instance.

    I've seen blogs that I thought I deleted become active again but with me locked completely out. Facebook says they deleted my profile but who really knows? A big part of our internet activity is now effectively permanent, which certainly wasn't the case when I was dialing long-distance to look for shareware on a BBS. I believe we'll come to a cultural point where employers will disregard the bulk of the idiotic things they find when they Google you (since they'll be in the same boat), but I don't see the harm in, while the kids are our wards, helping them keep their permanent records clean, so to speak.

    For what it's worth, in ten years when our kids are in the throes of adolescence, they will likely not have smartphones. But that's just because their parents likely won't either. I say likely because who knows whether it will even be possible to function in society without one?

  12. D Ullman says

    We filter incoming emails for key words. If there is a hit the program it sends us the sentence the word appears in. If it seems necessary we will check it out.

    For browsing, we use site blocking. Also, once a day the browser history is emailed to me and processed. I get a list of unexpected sites (as in sites that aren't facebook, google or other places that are expected) and will check out the site if it seems necessary. It rarely is necessary.

    For phones we use a keylogger (which I dislike) and again scan for keywords. If there is a hit we check it out.

    The kids are also told we can view what they are doing any time we want to without notice.

    We are friends with them on all social sites.

    We also explain to the kids exactly what we are doing and how it impacts their privacy. We don't look at what they are doing unless we have reason to do so. The kids already don't have a problem with coming to us about cyperbullying, perverts etc.

  13. Henrik T. says

    It comes down to trust. If you monitor your child's mail etc., you're telling the kid that you do not trust her (or him). And you are IMO stepping on the child's inalienable rights (you know, those rights which self-evidently applies to all humans, even if they aren't adults. Or Americans. Or white. Or straight. Etc.).

    What you need to do is to help the child manage these things responsibly. If he (or she) can't do that, it's probably too early to allow her (or him) a phone, email account or whatever.

    Keep in mind that 13 is the age of consent in some civilised countries: Lots of 13-year olds handle important decisions responsibly.

    So I went with the "fascism" option though what I really want to say is that if you do not feel you can trust your children, you have a problem.

    Oh, and first-time poster, been reading Popehat since /. led me here on account of the Prenda farce. Very interesting.

    I am not a parent, though I had responsibilities for children (including an absolutely jailbaity teenager) and grandchildren for some years during a marriage. But I do remember being a child and not being trusted by my parents.

  14. Scott K says

    Through our cel phone provider we could set up hours when the phone (including texts – email wasn't relevant, they didn't have smart phones) would work or not. So there were core hours during the night and during school when they just flat out weren't using their phones.

    They found this very frustrating, but they also weren't paying for it, under 18, etc.

    For email, we reserved the right (and told them this) to review content of inbound and outbound emails. No comment on the degree to which we exercised that right.

  15. Rich Fiscus says

    I have 4 kids. One just finished her freshman year in college and made the President's List. Yeah I'm bragging – that's my right as a parent. One is about to be a senior in high school, the third will be a sophomore, and the youngest is going into 8th grade. Mostly in protest of the insane prices mobile companies charge, they only get phones if they pay for them. Right now only the oldest has one.

    However they all have email, the second oldest has a tablet, and both her and her brother (the sophomore) have had mobile phones in the past. My wife and I have always reserved the right to monitor their communications and have always been completely up front with them about it. Having said that, we rarely do look at what they are sending or receiving. Primarily it only happens if we suspect there's a reason to – and that almost never happens. I have been known to skim through a few messages for no reason at all and with no advance warning but once again not in secret or behind their backs.

    Good parenting is sometimes indistinguishable from psychological warfare. You can't just give children all the possible choices and let them figure everything out by trial and error. In the words of Groucho Marx, "Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself." Your kids are still young enough to know everything so you have to trick them into learning a lot of lessons the "easy" way.

    What's most important is knowing what your child needs, and that isn't even consistent within one family. However there was one lesson I picked up from a video at a local child psychology clinic which I do consider pretty much universal. It's also possibly the hardest and most counter intuitive thing to implement in real life.

    The only way you can teach your kids to be responsible is to give them responsibility. Not because they've earned it or because they're ready. Responsibility is a lot like parenthood itself. The only way to prepare is to experience it. You need to give them the necessities. What those are is your job to figure out. After a certain age everything else they need to earn. If you want them to learn to be responsible for themselves that is a necessity in and of itself.

    It's all in how you frame decisions – both to yourself and to them. I don't tell my kids if you don't do your chores you can't spend the night at a friend's house. I say if you want to spend the night at your friend's house here's what you need to do to earn it. If they don't get to do what they want it's not because I took something away from them. It's because they didn't do what they needed to do to get what they wanted. Now it's not my responsibility. It's theirs.

    It's a lot harder than it sounds. Sometimes it means you can't give your kids things you want to and that sucks. Sometimes it means letting them make decisions you know they will regret and that sucks even more. But if you learn how to do this it also means when you aren't there to protect them they will make fewer (or smaller) mistakes because they already have a head start on being an adult. The bad decisions they make at that point are likely to suck even more.

  16. C. S. P. Schofield says

    My parents allowed me to work in a comic book store in the 1970's, when comic book stores necessarily sold High Times, underground "comix", Hustler, and Soldier of Fortune to pay the rent. They were SLEAZY with a capitol SLEAZE. They figured it was better for me to make mistakes when I was living at home than to wait until I got to college.

    To a degree, it worked. I had tried pot at the store (the owner was, frankly, the living avatar of Bozo The Clown after Bozo dropped out and dropped acid). It didn't like it that much. I wasn't seriously tempted in college. I stewed up in other ways.

    My parents might or might not have monitored email and texting. I know they had strong principles against opening mail. When I was in high school my Mother read a book about a teenage girl whose mother opened her mail. MY MOTHER said to her teenaged son that she would have reported the woman to the postal authorities.

    Now, I'm a Crank, and a grouch, and more than a tad strange. So you might not want to follow my parents' example.

  17. says

    I showed my daughter (without the really explicit stuff) what happened with Revenge Porn sites as I tried to help some of the victims. I showed her several hacks. I showed her the contents of BlueSnarfer and the Cellebrite machine. It's hard to say "I trust you" by taking the negative view of things, so i try to keep it "You get trust by default – if you do something to break it, that's on you". You can completely abdicate parental responsibility with such a philosophy, but you can't protect your kids from everything – teaching them to protect themselves seems to be pretty effective, at least so far.

  18. iostream says

    I'm actually surprised to read this from Ken. When I was a kid my parents didn't monitor me to such an extent and I had to deal with things far more dangerous than some weirdos in Internet. Shockingly enough, I survived, I never tried drugs and generally I'm fine… I don't have kids, but I don't see what's the point in monitoring them like this.
    I also should note that if kids are raised under heavy surveillance from parents, I think they will be more acceptable to surveillance from the state.

  19. battywriter says

    I do not have any kids but my own vote is let them know it is possible but don't do it regularly. We have to give kids *some* privacy or else how can we expect them to be irritated when the government take it away when they're adults?

  20. Xenocles says


    The role of the parent necessarily demands a more activist role than the one many of us would be comfortable assigning to the state. It is not coincidental that a common objection to overweening government is that it treats adults like children. Children do not have the same rights as adults, so inferring what a person would so with power over adults from what he does with power over children is unlikely to provide useful results.

  21. Timothy says

    I really don't think this is a good way to establish trust with your child. It's going to encourage them hide things from you, and teach them how to hide better than you know how to look.

    Then again, maybe you want this; it's how I learned how to use a computer.

  22. StephenM3 says

    Teenagers will always try to find a way to feel as if they have some independent agency from their parents. The more you try to prevent them from doing so, the further the arms race will escalate, and the higher the stakes will raise. The few kids who do go through teenagehood without ever finding that slice of independence, tend to collapse from the sudden gravity once they're on their own.

  23. Fadeway says


    Humans have the rights you give them. My problem is exactly with people's unwillingness to give them certain rights.

    If you trust yourself but not your children (who make stupid mistakes), given the power, I infer you'll trust yourself but not those you govern (who make stupid mistakes). This might play out differently because the governed can fight back and you'd want to avoid retaliation, but nice-sounding phrases aren't meant to hold out during deeper examination anyway.

    Ken might be a good lawyer, but I'd bet he's not a good manager. You let your subordinates make as many mistakes as possible while they're individual contributors, to avoid having them crash and burn when they become executives.

  24. Pete says

    I tell my kids the truth, which is that monitoring all of their communications has prevented dozens of terrorist attacks.

  25. Xenocles says


    Children cannot have the same rights as adults because they do not have the same responsibilities. In most cases children are not ready for those responsibilities. It's the job of the parent to help them become ready and during this development to shield them from situations they are totally unready for. I'd guess the reason teenage years are so hard for parents is because their children are becoming ready for some very adult responsibilities and rights at unpredictable moments – it's very hard to tell when they are ready for any particular right but not the rest. This is likely the source of much of the friction in families with teenaged children.

    It's not as simple as letting kids make mistakes. Letting a fourteen-year-old play with industrial explosives unsupervised is a terrible way to teach him to handle explosives responsibly. The stakes are too high – the mistake from which he is supposed to learn is likely to be fatal. Obviously nearly all of the internet does not rise to the clear danger of my explosives scenario, but it should be equally obvious that the worst parts of it can very easily lead to physical danger for the unprepared. I have no respect for the argument that bullies should be held criminally responsible for suicides, but those suicides are still dead. Maybe with some monitoring their parents could have intervened. Maybe that hypothetical prevention would have come from some other coincident factor. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered. But the fact remains that the consequences of those children's internet usage were fatal.

    I don't have an answer for Ken. I don't have an answer for me in ten years (my oldest is six). But likewise I refuse to condemn those who hold the reins a little more tightly than I might. People are just too different for me to offer a general prescription from any perspective, least of all my armchair.

  26. says

    Give 'em as much freedom as they can handle, but … abuse it and lose it. Trust lost is hard to regain (works both ways!).

    Mine were warned that the Internet is not their friendly neighborhood and that they should behave as if I were looking over their shoulders or else I would actually do so. (The one that skated closest to the thin ice now has a master's in compsci. The other deals with hordes of kids and smartphones every day).

    Middle school is not that far from standing on his own — chew your fingernails and give him a chance to skin his knees.

    Oh, yeah, remember your kids will someday be able to toss you up in the air. Whether they catch you or not depends on what you do now. Govern yourself accordingly. :D

  27. says

    My only comment about the various conclusions being drawn about me (which I expected, though perhaps not the exact details) is that the question is very specifically directed at middle schoolers — that is, 12-year-olds. If people are assuming the same rules would apply to, say, 16 year olds who have demonstrated a pattern of trustworthiness, that is their assumption.

  28. Xenocles says

    Possibly unnecessary clarification: 16 had no special significance for my remarks; it's just the result of adding a round number to my situation.

  29. Dan Weber says

    Just yesterday I had a talk with my son reminding him that I could monitor his internet activity. He must have forgot because he said it was news to him. Then I said I could particularly monitor what he had done between 9:55pm and 10:05pm last night. He played dumb about what I meant until I mentioned a few key words.

    Anyway, kids should have rules, and kids should also experiment in breaking rules.

    Every kid is different. With some kids, you have to worry that they are incapable of following any rules, including the rules that keep them safe. With other kids, you have to worry that they follow rules too much. It's a matter of figuring out which direction you want to push him.

    (The kind of things kids can get access to these days is a lot different than I could access to with a 300 baud modem. (I thought I was so cool for having downloaded the instructions for mking thermite. Which reminds me of http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2338#comic )

  30. says

    Also: the argument that I should be opposed to parents monitoring kids because I am often opposed to the government monitoring citizens suggests that the speaker draws an equivalence between the parent-child relationship and the government-citizen relationship.

  31. Steven H. says

    @Ken White:

    "is that the question is very specifically directed at middle schoolers — that is, 12-year-olds."

    12 year-olds don't need a smartphone.

    Given that you allow him/her/it to have one, monitor it lightly, explaining carefully WHY you are monitoring it, and providing examples of the need for such from the interwebs….

  32. Michael says

    I'm still too young to have children, but am going to comment quite frankly on the experience of growing up with my two parents (they didn't live together and took different tactics to how to parent).

    I suppose there's really only three things:

    1. Supervision of activities doesn't require reading messages, don't construct a false dichotomy. Anyone looking at the content of what their kids are doing without some basis is invading their privacy – same as reading a journal, letter to a friend, etc. There is usually more than enough metadata (such as asking who they're talking to) to effectively police activity.

    2. Strictly policing activity is ineffective with technology – and probably in general. Any kid who has access to Google and can install a program or reboot the computer with a thumb drive plugged in can bypass your monitoring. Especially if they have access to a second computer you don't monitor. The only way to even come close to doing so is to monitor, at a hardware level, things like keystrokes. Of course, if you tell your child that they're having their keystrokes monitored, it makes it a violation of many websites ToS for them to continue to log in… they'd be sharing their password with you, knowingly!

    3. The damage you do in strict monitoring is much, much worse than the typical trouble kids will get up to on the internet. People in to bypassing security on the internet are also the people in to cybercrime, drugs, etc. (Okay, not /all/ of them, but go hang out in the information security parts of the web and tell me if it doesn't feel just a little bit… dirtier.) All of the harm (including criminal activities and risk of physical injury) that came out of the internet (in my case) were directly related to coming in to contact with those communities trying to avoid parental supervision. Consider this the digital equivalent of your parents never letting you wander (you might see a porn store!) and so you wander to the bad part of town one night. The more that you force your children to live in a repressive bubble or flee for freedom, the more they'll tend to interact with that group of people.

    If you think I'm joking about the degree of intermingling, the realize that Tor and Freenet – two prominent tools to communicate anonymously online (and which will stop some kinds of passive network capture) – are used heavily in organized crime, drug trading, and child pornography distribution. Similarly, studies in to predatory habits of pedophiles suggest that they're active primarily on Facebook, kids gaming websites, WoW, etc. rather than the "shady" places of the internet. This jives with what we know about kids primarily being kidnapped by people who know them and people primarily being raped by people who know them. The truth is, if you let your children online, you're exposing them to the social (and pedophilic) dangers – and the only defense of that is to monitor literally everything said… or have responsible children you've actually talked to and who will warn you when things become uncomfortable for them.

    tl;dr: For both governments and parents, loose meta-data analysis and community building are more effective than repressive tactics and technological hurdles, particularly against rare-but-hard-to-spot crimes like terrorism or child abduction.

    PS: "Doing more" might actually do more harm than good in many cases, as a parent. One of the hardest lessons seems to be letting go when your child is in trouble, but my parents almost got me seriously injured in a situation that didn't merit it because they wanted to "help" and escalated the situation. (Not that the kind of thing happening was anything they were familiar with or had any specific reason (that they could articulate) to think their input against my wishes would be "helpful". They were just older and knew better.)

  33. Craig says

    One problem is that if/when an issue does arise, it is likely not to come from something you considered a danger. I am less concerned about the alleged legions of Internet pedophiles preying on children (we have yet to come across any, and our kids know better than to give out personal information to strangers) than about boyfriends. American society today seems to be all about getting what you want by any means necessary, and for the parents of girls, this means that it is actually a good idea to revive the old tradition of showing your daughter's new boyfriend your shotgun and subtly making it clear what will happen to him if any harm comes to her.

  34. Turk says

    I have one kid going into 6th and one going into 8th, so I'm right with you.

    Spot check the emails; don't see the texts (can't they just delete them?); monitor Instagram; don't have FB yet.


    You can't really be too ruthless in monitoring, as they will always find a way around it. Kids will eventually drink and screw and do everything you did (or wanted to do).

    The big part of parenting is really about teaching them how to make decisions for themselves, then crossing your fingers and praying for the best. Thank goodness my wife is good at the teaching part.

  35. AlphaCentauri says

    I got lucky on this one. Both of my kids not only didn't have smart phones, they weren't too interested in the house phone. We couldn't get them to answer the phone when it rang. Emails weren't monitored, though we had the passwords had it come down to it. We were friends of many of their friends on FB, so they never knew what we might see.

    However, if you've got a middle school boy, I'd strongly consider a net-nanny program for a few years, and keeping the computer in a visible area of the house. He's going to be curious, and he's going to be curious about girls his own age. You don't want Google searches for "naked 12 year old girls" from your IP address to draw attention of law enforcement.

  36. Ric says

    I'm only 19 and have no children so I didn't answer but I would vote for sparse monitoring due to my experiences.
    I didn't have the best of times as a kid, my stepmother did all she could to show just how much she hated me and my father looked the other way most of the time so as not to start a fight. I had absolutely no privacy and that didn't change when my stepsister and I got computers of our own ~7th grade. She got free access and I got completely locked out and monitored. I had to get my father to allow every site I used and they had to be reallowed every week or so. I moved in with my grandmother a bout a year after that and used my new freedom to learn all I could about computers and electronics. As I type this I'm in MSU's early start program and will be a freshman electrical engineering major in the fall. None of that could be possible if I had stayed at my dad's. I also have issues with others using my computers or, when I'm at home, comming into my room; I spent so long without privacy that it is very dear to me now. (Having a roommate is not an issue, it's not the same)

    Having said all that, after I moved out my stepsister becanme more limited in terms of internet usage. It was nowhere near the levels that I had to put up with but my father started monitoring her comuications when he figured out that she has no problem giving out all sorts of personal information at the drop of a hat. Honestly, I could have told hin she did that when I was there.

    Basically this boils down to "monitor sparingly if at all and only become more active with cause."

  37. Matthew says

    I can't believe any parent would ever do this to their child. What is wrong with you that you can't even afford them a modicum of privacy with respect to their personal lives? Would you follow them around with a listening device and eavesdrop on conversations with their friends? Jesus, it is like none of you were ever teenagers yourselves. I feel bad for the children growing up in this generation with their helicopter tiger parents who run their lives for them–a generation of children who will grow up and go crazy once they throw the yoke off of themselves.

  38. SassQueen says

    My three are all less than school-age, so I have a ways to go, and I know things will probably change all over again by then, so here's what I'd do if they were in middle school now:

    Private communication (e.g., text and email) I would treat as I would have the archaic forms of my youth such as phone calls, notes, journals: to be held inviolate, only to be breached in the most dire of circumstances (Susie has run away from home, and I'm looking for clues).

    I'm probably going to be very leery of picture texting, Instagram, etc. No selfies of my daughter's boobs going anywhere, thankyouverymuch.

    Probably no social media at all until high school, and then only if you prove trustworthy enough to have earned it. And I'm friends with you. And I have your password.

  39. Matthew says

    The comments on this thread are seriously disturbing. I weep for the generations of children that are going to have to grow up with their parents breathing down their necks like this. Your kids are just going to buy burner phones, use emails you don't know about, and use anti-tracking software to frustrate these gestapo tactics–perhaps they will learn a few things doing so too. You all forfeit the right to complain when your kids go away to college and never come back.

  40. Xenocles says


    "Just going to buy burner phones" with what money? "Use emails [we] don't know about" on what computer?

    A child has no right to privacy. They are students of life, and parents are necessarily their main teachers. Proper execution of that responsibility insists that parents take measures to grade their students' work, which demands periodic audit and correction. (Hell, children don't even have an absolute right to bodily integrity. I may take the time to explain to them why the doctor is going to jab them with a needle but that's for their own knowledge, not to convince them. At the end of the day they're getting their shots no matter how loudly they object.) And this is as it should be, because a juvenile by definition lacks the ability to make those decisions for himself. While they may be able to demonstrate that ability incrementally, it remains the duty of the parent to provide feedback until such time that the children become adults – whether by the crossing of an arbitrary age line or by a more tailored criterion.

    And you're a fool if you think monitoring programs satisfy your duty to monitor, frankly. Do you think that's all Ken plans to do? I have no doubt these monitoring efforts are a single tool in a suite of parenting methods he exercises, and that they will be adjusted according to what those other tools show him.

  41. Salty says

    Speaking as a man who grew up using the internet heavily, monitoring your children is up to you and (hopefully) them.

    But I'll give you this warning. If you monitor your kids and they are aware of it, they will learn ways to get around it. Everybody has or wants to have secrets, and teenagers more so than many.

    I am, of course, speaking from experience.

  42. Michael says

    (Hell, children don't even have an absolute right to bodily integrity. I may take the time to explain to them why the doctor is going to jab them with a needle but that's for their own knowledge, not to convince them. At the end of the day they're getting their shots no matter how loudly they object.)

    You'll find that middle schoolers do have rights over their bodies, including the legal right to have sex (within an age range), the right to seek mental health treatment and the right to seek sexual health treatment (both without guardian approval or even knowledge), and have increasing ability to object to medical treatments at large. (Naturally, specifics of these vary by jurisdiction; twelve or thirteen years of age is the cut-off for many of these in my current jurisdiction.)

    So to actually answer Ken's question: do you think that someone who has the right to seek out consultation with a mental health professional or to be sexually active without your permission (both legally) should have their privacy routinely and consistently invaded by you as a matter of "keeping them safe"?

    That seems to be what your argument is saying.

  43. whheydt says

    This wasn't a problem when my kids were in the age range in question, as they were both born in the mid-1970s. My daughter will face the issue when her now 5-year-old is older…and I wish her luck with it. If I'm still around, I may be able to talk to my grandson to deal with any issues he has…

    I would like to draw a couple of analogies, though.

    The first one is the the endless stream of "my mother has been reading my diary" complaints one used to see in the agony columns. The answers were almost invariably, talk to your parents and establish rules, limits, and a degree of expected privacy, plus–if you expect it to be a recurring problem–don't write down anything that will cause repercussions.

    The other point is books. That one my wife and I did deal with. We maintained a policy that the kids could read any book in the house. If asked, we would make recommendations–or dis-recommendations–as called for. We put books we considered unsuitable for children on high shelves ("Grey's Anatomy" fell in this category). We figured that the really unsuitable material would sail right over a kids head and do no harm. If they *understood* the material, then it wouldn't do any harm…at least none that hadn't been done already.

  44. Xenocles says

    Yes, Michael, that's exactly what I'm saying, if by "consistently and routinely" you mean "as the conditions dictate." And in the specific realm we're discussing, which is to say, privacy on a network, it's even more clear cut since the owner of a network certainly has the right to monitor activity on it. Every time I log on at work I "expressly consent to monitoring." So maybe doing so is actually treating the child as he might expect to be treated as an adult after all.

    As for your supposed counterexamples, all you've done is shown that the general right of children to bodily integrity is, in fact, not absolute. And none of them override the greater point, which is that children gain rights as they make the transition to adulthood. The fact that the law "allows" two children to have sex (in fact, all that means is that they won't go to jail for it, which I wholeheartedly approve of) has no bearing on my right to set rules for the conduct of my dependent children. The fact that a judge won't impose consequences for their behavior does not mean that I am barred from doing so. So we're back to square one, namely, what is appropriate conduct for a parent?

  45. princessartemis says

    No kids, but nephews ranging 11 – 18 who often stay at the house. We use a free site-blocking service after having spent too much time cleaning viruses off their computers. Besides, it's not their house, if they want to look for unsavory websites, they can do it elsewhere.

    Their parents are Facebook friends with them, and the 11-year-old does not have a smart phone AFAIK. I'm the family geek, so I've talked to them occasionally about Internet safety.

    I myself never kept a diary for the profound fear that it would be read and have worried about my privacy from a very early age. I wish you the best of luck in navigating these dicy waters–even middle school aged kids can have a highly developed sense of privacy.

  46. Michael says

    And in the specific realm we're discussing, which is to say, privacy on a network, it's even more clear cut since the owner of a network certainly has the right to monitor activity on it.

    Except that a workplace (or most networks) don't actually have a right to say, break in to your VPN to monitor what you're saying to your friends over it. They can't demand my login to either machine (except machines they provide), and they can't demand I turn over records related to it.

    We routinely view workplaces monitoring employee email and social network usage as creepy and intrusive even in the cases where it's in plaintext and they do have an interest in monitoring it.

    So we're back to square one, namely, what is appropriate conduct for a parent?

    My point was actually more subtle and I think I stated it poorly: if the state recognizes that these children are sufficiently old to enter in to mental health treatment without parental consent or knowledge, are we still in the realm where it's acceptable to say they have no reasonable expectation of privacy? You can certainly think either way, but society seems to be affirming that children of that age are sufficiently developed to have some autonomy about their mind – and I'd say a necessary part of that development is the ability to keep secrets.

    I'd further contend that whatever the answer is, the removal of a child's rights without positive effect is wrong – it's simply stripping a person of rights because you decided to. How we measure that, is of course, open to much debate. My (larger, overarching) point is that the invasive kinds of observation that many here are recommending a) doesn't increase the monitoring ability of parents because of technical workarounds and the breakdown in parent/child trust and b) is actually dangerous in a few ways (like increasing contact with "bad" people and removing an important developmental tool – having somewhere besides family to talk to people).

    In this regard, I don't actually view this kind of invasion of privacy as a parental right – it's like getting elective surgery for stylistic reasons, and something that is an inappropriate use of parental authority.

    My contention is that effective parenting has to rely on what it always has had to rely on – the metadata about what's happening in their life, rather than actual content. Things like placing the computer in a public space, asking about who they're talking to (and details about the person to check for composition-on-the-fly/lying), looking at trends of behavior, etc.

    I don't know that we're actually disagreeing, now that I've read back through posts, but I still think you fall on the more intrusive side of things than I would.

  47. Kasper says


    Incoming college freshman here, so I know my opinion won't garner much respect, but I have a right to say it, no? My parents never monitored me (I was actually the only one who consistently remembered the internet password) and I think I turned out alright. ("Never monitored me" is an understatement. They're European immigrants (I drink when I want), so they literally have never stopped me from doing anything. Except skydiving.)

    I feel like even at a middle school age, kids should start to be left alone to make their own decisions about content. I have not a single friend whose life was ruined by "pornography addiction", nor do I have a friend who knocked a girl up / was knocked up (though it's not something people proclaim on the streets – there could've been a few secret abortions).

    In fact, I honestly feel like the most messed up kids I know are the ones whose parents were very restrictive on what they could do – which cased a rebellious attitude that led to all sorts of trouble. In my case, my parents' tolerance of just about anything has prevented this, and the drive to success they imbued me with when I was a lot younger has kept me focused on bigger goals – that is, I'll smoke weed once every few months, but neither it nor my drinking have had an impact on my life. I never let the "bad" things I do grow to the point that they affect me.

    In a few weeks, I leave for a top 10 college. One of my closest friends is going to Harvard, and he's been extremely promiscuous for years. Another one, going to Princeton, has never been monitored by his parents in the least.

    It's hard to let go, but based on what I've seen in my past few years at high school, I firmly believe that if you've raised your kids well up until this point, it's time to start letting them make their own choices, and have their own private life. After all, they'll still be coming home to you for the next six years. You'll notice if things go south.

    I'm also a big proponent of the "if they don't do it now, they'll do it later" argument – basically, if you prevent your kids from making stupid choices (getting blackout drunk, not heroin – there's a line here) now, they'll probably make them in college, when you won't be around to help them recover.

    It's scary to do, but letting go is better for your kids in the long run.

  48. Xenocles says

    I'd further contend that whatever the answer is, the removal of a child's rights without positive effect is wrong – it's simply stripping a person of rights because you decided to.

    I certainly didn't suggest denying them privileges (for that's what they are, truly) just because we can. It should be clear from my writing and from most of the others here that these things are done with the ultimate welfare of the children in mind, and that they are to be adjusted to that end according to the perceived conditions. To be a parent is necessarily to be a tyrant, at least for some of the child's life. It is the hope (my hope, anyway) that I can loosen the reins of this tyranny with time, but while the decision is ultimately mine I must refrain from capriciousness in that regard just as I must when I choose to clamp down; it is my duty to respond to what I see when I take a careful and interested look at my children. If I see people who are not ready to face the real dangers of the internet, they will not be granted unfettered access to it.

    So while I believe I will be lenient in time I do reserve the right to withdraw privileges as necessary, and that it is the place of each parent to determine that necessity. If that means that my children cannot be friends with me, I can live with that. In fact it is entirely appropriate that they not be my friends, for it will be decades before I even entertain the possibility that they are my peers. If this strikes you as unseemly or creepy, all I can say is that children and adults are essentially different in nature and that it is not until children become adults that they are entitled to be treated as adults. Whether they are to be declared as such at a uniform milestone or by specific criteria achievable when each child is ready is debatable.

  49. Chris says


    Mildly surprised by this. I think if my four boys had been girls, and if I had thought it appropriate for them to have their own phone at that age (which I didn't), then I might have taken such steps. But I'm not sure…

  50. says

    But I'll give you this warning. If you monitor your kids and they are aware of it, they will learn ways to get around it. Everybody has or wants to have secrets, and teenagers more so than many.

    I understand that this is the conventional wisdom.

    However, my son forgets on average twice per month that we are monitoring him.

  51. Bob Brown says

    I don't have children, and when I was 12, middle school hadn't been invented. (Yes, I am an old fart.) From the time school was out until "supper time" (about 6:00) I was "out playing." My parents didn't have a clue where I was, within the limits of bicycle range. Did I make mistakes? Sure, but I've never been injured by another, been to prison, barred from a job requiring trust, etc. "Experience is what you get when you're expecting something else."

    Read what Kasper has written above, tell your child about the dangers, and let trust do its work. It will, I promise.

  52. iostream says

    @Ken White
    "My only comment about the various conclusions being drawn about me (which I expected, though perhaps not the exact details) is that the question is very specifically directed at middle schoolers — that is, 12-year-olds. If people are assuming the same rules would apply to, say, 16 year olds who have demonstrated a pattern of trustworthiness, that is their assumption."

    I'm not drawing any conclusions about you, but I do have a question – what exact sort of dangers are you preventing by monitoring e-mails, smartphone messages and Internet traffic?

    I mean, when I was a kid, about 7-14 years old, the biggest danger I faced were, mostly, other kids. They could fight with me and thus physically injure me or they could get me into smoking, alcohol and drugs. I fail to see how Internet or smart phones can change anything when it comes to security of a kid. E-mails don't hurt, mostly.

    "Also: the argument that I should be opposed to parents monitoring kids because I am often opposed to the government monitoring citizens suggests that the speaker draws an equivalence between the parent-child relationship and the government-citizen relationship."
    Well, I certainly didn't give this argument, but I do think that if a kid once accepted a heavy surveillance from parents or school, in the future he has higher probability of accepting a government surveillance. Just saying.

    "However, my son forgets on average twice per month that we are monitoring him."
    Or that's what he wants you to think :)

    "He's going to be curious, and he's going to be curious about girls his own age. You don't want Google searches for "naked 12 year old girls" from your IP address to draw attention of law enforcement."
    Ehh… I can't imagine any boy doing a search like this. They mostly would search directly for adult women's photos, in any case they wouldn't specify an age like this. I think you clearly forgot yourself as a kid :)

  53. AlphaCentauri says

    I didn't block information from my kids — but I shared the introduction. Anatomy and embryology books were shared when they were toddlers. And I showed them websites like the KKK to show them that that sort of stuff still exists and looks just as slick and professional as any other website.

    But even if your kids have been well-trained not to visit sketchy websites and not to use Internet Explorer, they may have friends over who can coax them into using IE to see a funny video that won't play on Firefox — because the site delivers malware. When the family computer is pwned, nobody has any privacy.

  54. AlphaCentauri says

    @iostream — I speak from experience. Yes, that's exactly what my kid googled.

  55. Dan Weber says

    When the family computer is pwned, nobody has any privacy.

    It's not complete proof, but I highly recommend that your kids have non-administrator accounts. It's surely made my life easier.

  56. barry says

    In most of the world (the countries in green), children do have the right to privacy by international law. The reasons American children do not have this right seems mostly to do with the state wanting to be allowed to execute the little bastards, which is not allowed by the convention.

    But its still up to the parent to figure out how to provide that privacy. As well as privacy from parents, the parents also have to provide privacy from the world, potential predators etc. It's a conflict. Just the privacy part alone looks like a pretty heavy duty time consuming parenting job with difficult decisions.

    Technology is changing how this is done. My mother had one wall-phone, but a human intelligence network that George Smiley would have envied. There were not many places I could be, things I could do, or people I could be with that she couldn't tell me about in disturbing detail within a couple of days. (some of it still confuses me)

    The danger is that not so much that whatever technology is available will be used; people already discuss if they would implant GPS microchip tracking in their kids (and would they like audio and video to go with that if/when possible?). The real danger is that the kids will just learn to accept it as normal.

  57. Black Betty says

    Hey Ken,

    Ever heard of this guy on twitter: @d0ct0r_dOom? Scroll through his feed for about an hour and then decide whether or not you're gonna monitor your children's electronic devices. Just sayin.

  58. Hoare says

    iphone? install "Life 360" and track their movements too.
    (It even helped us track it down when a "friend" "jacked" it.)

  59. mud man says

    What Fadeway said. "As above, so below." – Aleister Crowley

    Besides that, if you actually shouldn't be trusting your kids, then monitoring will just teach them to be sneaky. (If they aren't Good (not the same as Smart) People at 12, it's too late for all YOU can do.)

    When mine were that age, negotiation problems with The Mom precluded any serious attempt at that level of control, so I congratulate you on your marital situation. Of course there have been some surprising self-revalations from the boys since, but they have turned out All Right.

  60. says

    You people scare me.

    Are you really so intent on training up a new generation of NSA spies? Learn the lessons well, kiddies — the golden rule is a fairy tale for suckers; respect is just a show; privacy exists only if you can't find the means to destroy it; consideration of another person is to be given only under threat. R.I.P. Mr. Rogers. You don't want to see your neighborhood as it is now.

  61. says

    @Ken – You should go for the LULZ and update the poll to ask the same question factoring in the child's sex.

  62. macphile says

    I don't have kids, first, so I wasn't getting involved in the poll.

    Checking up on elementary school kids, I think, is fine. Once they get into junior high and especially high school, though, the game has to change. I don't view it as really any different from listening in to in-person conversations, reading diaries, and the like. I know there are dangers on the web, but it's not like all your kid is doing is getting hit on by grown men–they're also having all the thoughts and experiences and confusion that any developing kid has. Invading that is "not cool."

    More importantly, if your kid has any brain at all, you will *not* be seeing reality. Kids aren't so dumb as to not have multiple e-mail accounts, different social media accounts, and so on. If worse comes to worse, they can get access via a friend's computer or device or anywhere else the information is accessible. The more you invade, the further afield the kid will go to get what he wants.

    Of course, all of this assumes that all is going well. It's all about trust. If the kid actually louses up, then checking up on them can be part of the "punishment" and restrictions that a kid would always get in that case.

  63. Not Ward says

    I am aware of a teenage girl that recently was found to have had consensual sex with an adult (whom is now being tried for the crime). Had her parents monitored her text messages, they would have been aware of the looming risk prior to said crime when they read the text messages. We can all cite examples of risky behavior that we engaged in and did not suffer any worse for doing, but that doesn't guarantee anything. The risks are real, each parent can choose how to negotiate them, and for most children, it won't matter what their parents do. They will probably reach adulthood unscathed. Some won't, and it won't matter what their parents do. But for some children, whether their parents monitor their activities, it can save lives, among other experiences. YMMV.

  64. Xenocles says

    Invading that is "not cool."

    I dunno macphile, once you've been elbow-deep in your child's excrement a few times you sort of lose your concern about being "cool" later on in their lives.

  65. Dragonmum says

    Hi Ken! I've been lurking for over a year – finally there's a topic I can contribute some expertise from 28 years as a Mom!

    To my somewhat muzzy mind (3 kids will do that), "to monitor" =\= "to control". I remember my adolescence; my motto was "What my parents don't know won't hurt them." I parent accordingly; I believe in snooping into anything and everything, but never interfering unless safety or appropriateness (mostly graphic porn for the under 16 crowd) are involved. What my kids don't know I know won't hurt them…

    I tried to sure my kids have always felt safe telling me almost anything (which can lead to TMI, but that's another story.) For me, this meant being as honest and transparent with them as possible in age-appropriate ways. The seeds of trust and honesty must be sown very early, too. It also helps to be the Mommy-hacker psychiatrist, too.

    My 2 older kids grew up in the time of dial-up, chat-room, AIM, message boards, no smart phones – with no TV or video games. The computer the kids used was always in the main living area. Even though I monitored their computer use (for time, appropriateness of content, stalkers), I only used a "nanny program" for time limitations for a short while – it proved more trouble than was worth, especially in content limitation – which my older (now 25) son just hacked around when he was 13 to explore the wide web world of porn. Luckily, Mommy out-hacked him. My now 28 yo lawyer daughter needed help dealing with a stalker in the on-line community she frequented at 14… They both went to our state science and math 2 yr boarding high school, so it would have been a mess if I'd been a controlling parent. Now I have 2 wonderful, delightful grown-ups who live up to my expectations that they question authority and maintain healthy skepticism.

    Fast-forward 11 years and I'm home-schooling son #2. We do have one TV, because the cable is bundled with land-line and broadband, but still no gaming systems. I'm the family sys admin but I'm not intrusive. He didn't want a phone because he was afraid he'd lose it. I got him a "dumb phone" when he was 14 so we could keep in communication when he wandered off through fields (and when he was 15, cities in Europe). I think most middle schoolers aren't mature enough to manage the temptations of a smart phone. They often spend far too much time texting and not enough experiencing the world. I got my son his first smart phone this year at 17. He's not as tech-savy as his older sibs, so I just had to monitor the computer (still in public space) browser history to catch the usual teen-age boy porn nonsense at 13. I know all his passwords & am friends on the social networks he uses. (brag) He's started his professional photography business & is writing a novel… and loves spending time at our Won Buddhist temple.(/brag)

    tl;dr – Trust your kids, but I think kids feel more secure if they know there's a safety net. Remember, "knowing" doesn't mean "controlling", but knowing allows you, as a parent, to intervene more quickly if things go south.

  66. SKT says

    @ Xenocles

    Children don't have the same rights as adults?? Wha??

    I hope that's a joke.

  67. Tom says

    . . .

    f) Other

    g) "who fuckin' knows and here's hoping you figure out manageable solutions (which will all be wildly different according to Murphy's Law) for all three of your little menaces."

    "g" is the credited response.

  68. Tom says


    However, if you've got a middle school boy, I'd strongly consider a net-nanny program for a few years, and keeping the computer in a visible area of the house. He's going to be curious, and he's going to be curious about girls his own age. You don't want Google searches for "naked 12 year old girls" from your IP address to draw attention of law enforcement.

    This is one of the strangest things I've ever read. Have ever been or known a hetero twelve-year-old boy?

  69. Xenocles says


    I'm thoroughly confused. Did you misunderstand me and think that "not the same rights" means "no rights at all?" Because it doesn't.

    Where do you live that they do have the same rights as adults? See a lot of five year olds casting ballots? Ever hire a ten year old for a summer job? Is there suddenly no age floor on getting a driver's license? This should make sense even if for no other reason that children are utterly dependent on their guardians (in nearly all cases, don't go on a tangent about child stars), which implies a measure of responsibility missing that one would expect to the rights of an adult. They certainly lack the judgement required to exercise them responsibly, which as I've said numerous times now is the parents' job to help them obtain.

  70. says

    I've got no kids yet, so it's a bit early to say.

    I was in a family of early adopters and had Internet access at a young age, but it was a different time back then too. I got the "There are predators out there, don't give out your address" talk, but this was before people even really shared photos online — whole other world.

    Again, I don't know how my wife and I will approach things when the time comes. My thinking at this point is something along the lines of "I'd like you to let me know who you're talking to but I'm not going to check unless I have a reason to worry — but understand that if something starts eating up large quantities of bandwidth I'm probably going to see what it is whether I'm trying to spy on you or not." Course, I've got the good sense to know that the hypotheticals I'm sitting here coming up with as a childless 30-year-old may have little or nothing to do with my decisions years down the road — and that's without even getting into the point that in the coming years we'll be looking at technologies that disrupt our current status quo as much as smartphones have over the past 6 years.

  71. Tom says

    I see I jumped the gun with my comment to AlphaCentauri–iostream made the same point (the first part of that comment bored me so I skipped the rest and the responses; mea culpa) and AlphaCentauri addressed it in a way that leaves me even more flummoxed, but withdrawn as thread-clogging.

  72. Anony Mouse says

    Don't have kids, so I answered how I would handle it.

    Briefly: I think trust is important, but I know that I could be a tearaway at that age, so, like Reagan said, "Trust, but verify". If you have reason to snoop, snoop. If not, then don't. They're either not doing anything wrong (and snooping would violate trust) or they're really good at hiding it and have Bizarro-world earned trust.

    Of coruse, I don't have kids, so what the hell do I know?

  73. Mick says

    My home internet access goes via a proxy server that cannot be bypassed. That allows me to set internet access times for my kids. It also gives a log of sites accessed.

    It is possible to do this technologically, I first did it 10 years ago, however its not something that the average person can do. One of the failings of my profession has been to add features rather than make things easier to use

  74. wgering says

    I shall refrain from casting a vote in the poll itself, as I lack any human larvae of my own.

    I believe I was in middle school more recently than many of the readers here though, so I'll comment on what I wish my mother had done but did not do.

    First and foremost, talk about it with your son. It seems that you've already done so, but don't allow it to be one of those "one and done" talks. The sad fact of the matter is that, even if you are not, someone is monitoring what he's doing online, now practically all the time. He needs to understand that what he does online can follow him into the meat world, and I think it's much better for that lesson to come from a parent than from a potential employer, a bored NSA agent or a greasy mouth-breathing pencilneck.

    Ultimately, I think the issue of "to spy or not to spy" should be determined by the behavior of the child. I would have a "test phase" after the initial bestowance of the smartphone, during which time you keep an eye on what sort of activity the kid gets up to on it. Not saying read every message (especially if they don't have the decency to use proper English, little shits), just make sure they don't start frequenting sites like SuicideCult.com or r/tortureporn.

    If you're worried about cyberbullying/stalking, ask your kid about it. If something's wrong, you'll probably know without reading all their Facebook messages. Hopefully your child trusts you enough to tell you on his/her own if something is wrong, but this isn't always the case; it certainly wasn't with me. I think trust is important to teaching responsible online behavior, and monitoring is not the greatest way to build trust. You could certainly keep an eye on them and not tell them, and I leave any moral questions of lying to your children as an exercise for the reader.

    And I'd like to second what RavingRambler said about SnapChat. Maybe not now, but certainly once Popehat the Younger enters high school (although it may be totally irrelevant by then, technology going the way it is).

    tl;dr: You know your kid. If you think they'll get up to mischief (the bad kind, not the Calvin & Hobbes kind) online, be a bit nosy. If you think you can trust them, maybe think about returning the favor and giving them their privacy.

  75. Grant Gould says

    I think my parents inadvertently hit on the right choice, and I intend to replicate it with my daughter: I will monitor to the best of my technological abilities, and count on her to defeat my monitoring and take responsibility for herself once it matters enough to her.

    (In my case that point came when I struck up a long-distance romance which my parents disapproved of; we've been married 12 years now.)

    I dearly hope to see the next decade's equivalents of Knoppix and Tor around the house one day. A kid without the technical skills to defeat monitoring and blocking software shouldn't be allowed online without monitoring and blocking software. And taking the time and trouble to defeat that gives a person a sense of ownership and responsibility that no lectures ever could.

    Responsibility is a thing that is taken, not a thing that is given.

  76. Zelmel says

    I think that ultimately this comes down to the old Russian proverb, "Trust but verify." Trust the kid in general, but make sure they're more or less on the straight-and-narrow. As many have already said, monitoring is fine as long as the kid knows and it is used to protect their safety and the safety of the network/computer/home in general (viruses, serious illegal activity, etc), not to be controlling or to embarrass the kid over little things.

  77. says

    Whatever you decide, be honest with your kid about trust, love, responsibility, and both of your roles therein.

    In my relationship with my kids, that "dad speech" sound slike this: "I may check in from time to time, because it's my job. I love you, and I trust you, but there is a lot in the world that you haven't seen yet, and I want to be there to help you understand and make good decisions. I need you to trust that I will not abuse this responsibility, just as I will trust you not to abuse your privileges. As you get older and more experienced, I'll back off. I'll let you make mistakes and learn when the stakes are low, but I need to help keep you safe from bad decisions made by you or others when the stakes are high, because I love you and want you to be safe and well."


  78. Max says

    This is not a simple question, and it's not just about "trusting your kid" or allowing them to "make mistakes." This is Popehat; your blog has dozens of examples of how the Justice System(tm) has screwed the little guy for relatively innocuous behavior. Ask yourself this: If Little Johnny texts a pic of his Anthony Weiner to the wrong girl, is he likely to be prosecuted for child porn?

    We live in a society with technology that allow behavioral norms to evolve faster than the laws that govern said behavior. Sadly, a single stupid teenaged mistake can now ruin your entire life.

  79. says

    It can… but usually doesn't.

    We need to call out the crazy overreactions when prosecutors overreach for "stupid teenaged mistakes." But there are millions of dumb teenagers making dumb mistakes every day in this country, and the most of them aren't victims of law-abuse. Extending dozens of cases over ten years to the whole os American society isn't right or fair, and sets an inaccurate paranoia around how bad "the system is." As a parent, I'm trying to remain cognizant of this and keep some goddamn perspective.

  80. Caudex says

    No kids, so I didn't vote. But in the not-so-distant past, my parents made it very clear that my phone/computer/etc. were privileges, not rights. If they had thought I was being a st00pid, the hammer would have come down. No monitoring–they trusted me–but they made it bloody well clear that, if I violated their trust, I'd be in deep trouble. And it worked. I've made mistakes on the internet, sure, but none that'll keep me from getting a job, or mar a political career that will never happen.

  81. SKT says

    @ Xenocles

    I live on planet Earth. Not sure if where I'm from, and for that matter where I live is relevant to this topic. And I have no children (that I know of) if that helps.

    You said "Children do not have the same rights as adults." Sorry if I can't, or or am too lazy/stupid to figure out how to quote properly on this site.

    Would you agree that children have the right to a life free from abuse and other inalienable rights given by our Creator, i.e., the right of freedom from oppression and intolerance and so on, and so forth? If so, then we can agree.

    If not, again, I hope you're joking. And I hope you have no children (that you know of).

    Bottom line, little people (children – as specified by Ken's criteria – ~12 year-old children) are people too. :)

  82. SKT says

    And I am certain we need to define what is a "right" and what is a "privilege". Especially for native English speakers and us non-lawyer types.

  83. Shawn says

    My daughter is only 8 months old, so she doesn't have a smartphone yet. Although she does occasionally attempt to operate mine, mostly by putting it in her mouth and excreting drool all over it.

  84. Xenocles says


    Ah, I see. You aren't paying attention at all. Like I said several times now, children have rights (principally the rights to protection from violence and cruelty in general, and many of the other protections against government force that attach to adults) but they do not have the full set of rights that adults do.

    Where you live would tell me the specific legal scheme I can draw on for examples, but it doesn't really matter because just about everywhere there has ever been law has recognized the essential disability of youth with respect to rights and responsibilities. To wit:

    Have you ever been carded when you buy alcohol, tobacco, firearms, fireworks, or pornography? In case you were confused, they weren't looking to see if you can drive a car.

    Have you ever entered into a contract with a child? You should fire your lawyer if you plan to enforce it, because it's probably void.

    At one point you could hire children, but this practice is now mostly outlawed in the West. It's for their protection, but it also effectively eliminates the right to work for children.

    Suffrage for minors is a fringe position, and even in that fringe they still mostly only advocate going as low as sixteen.

    Nearly every state issues provisional drivers' licenses these days that impose significant limitations on the underage bearer.

    If an adult has apparently consensual sex with a minor, the adult will face legal trouble (there are sometimes defenses, but the adult will have to establish them). The child is not punished because a child is not legally expected to know better.

    And there is no right to freedom from intolerance for anyone (to do so would impose an unacceptable restriction on freedom of speech), so I don't know where you're coming from with that.

  85. says

    I got my first cell phone at 16 – my father didn't monitor my cell phone until he found out I was having fun with (separately) a 33-year-old and a 48-year-old after a relative overheard me. Take that how you will, as I turned out okay, albeit a bit jaded.

  86. KWK says

    I monitor all email/text/internet usage of my children, but I only read the messages if they are to/from someone I don't know. I also track their location 24/7 using an app on their cell phones. These were the terms they had to agree to in order to be granted the privilege of having a cell phone. With the number of children that go missing or are subjected to violent crimes on a daily basis, why wouldn't you use the technology available to help prevent that situation or help aid in the recovery of a child in that situation?

  87. Commenter says

    If you treat your child like a precious little flower who constantly has be monitored lest Bad Things ™ happen, then the child will never learn to be self-reliant and will never learn that the world can be a dangerous place.

  88. R R Clark says

    I won't bother telling you how great life is without TV (suffice it to say you will be able to figure that out for yourself when you cut the cord). I will tell you about StealthGenie, which is an amazing tool for spying on monitoring pretty much anyone you want. All of your crazy NSA conspiracy theories don't really match up with the capabilities of StealthGenie which is, if anything, more capable than anything you had ever feared. I think the latest version even has moderation tools so you can intercept and edit texts and e-mails before they're sent. Controlling parents: you're welcome. Conspiracy theorists: you're welcome.

  89. says

    "With the number of children that go missing or are subjected to violent crimes on a daily basis…"

    Just curious, what do you think that number is?

    Here's some color commentary by way of national crime statistics and analysis:
    "Only about one child out of each 10,000 missing children reported to the local police is not found alive. "
    "Number of children age 2 – 14 killed in car accidents, as passengers: 1300 Number of children killed each year by family members and acquaintances: About 1000 Number of children abducted in “stereotypical kidnappings” (kidnapped by a stranger for ransom or for sexual purposes and/or transported away) in 1999, the most recent year for which we have statistics: 115. Number of those children killed by their abductor: About 50. Murders of children by abductors constitute less than one half of 1% of all murders in America."


  90. Trevor says


    They certainly lack the judgement required to exercise them responsibly, which as I've said numerous times now is the parents' job to help them obtain.

    Yes, they do. And yes, it is the parents' job to help them obtain judgement. And you outline one valid method of helping them obtain that judgement. Where you and I differ is that you are proposing that YOUR method of helping one's children obtain the necessary judgement is the only method, or the only method unless the parent is a fool. And this is very very wrong.

    Citations from you implying that your method is the only method:

    To be a parent is necessarily to be a tyrant, at least for some of the child's life.

    Proper execution of that responsibility insists that parents take measures to grade their students' work, which demands periodic audit and correction.

    And you're a fool if you think monitoring programs satisfy your duty to monitor, frankly. Do you think that's all Ken plans to do?

    I do appreciate that in one post you said that you won't judge those who hold the reins more tightly than you, but I hope that you can extend that to also not judge those who hold the reins more loosely than you.

    There is more than one valid method of bringing up happy, healthy, well-adjusted children.


  91. Sertorius says

    Just to follow up RogerX's great post (above), I would ask what are you trying to prevent/protect your child from by monitoring email and texting? They are just means of communication. What kids my age would have talked about over the phone is now texted or emailed. My parents never eavesdropped on my phone calls.

    As RogerX pointed out, the "stranger danger" threat is so remote it's like worrying about your kid getting struck by lightning (which actually is statistically more common than a stranger kidnapping). So what's left? Gossip? Making fun of teachers? I just can't get too concerned over what kids are texting each other.

    Unlike some libertarians, I DO think exposure of children to internet pornography is a serious problem and something parents should do their best to stop. So I do think internet filters are a good thing.

  92. anonymous drive by commetner says

    As a child, one of my parents was quite inquisitive. (The other got up to plenty of mischief when _they_ were young, up to and including breaking bones, and had a less… overbearing POV about what I got up to.)

    I don't know who won the cat-and-mouse game. I assume my parents were smart enough to realize not keeping quiet about things would accelerate the escalation during times they had the upper hand.

    So I don't know. I'm not old enough to feel wise yet.

  93. KWK says

    "Just curious, what do you think that number is?"

    According to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in the USA an estimated 800,000 children are reported missing every year, of which 97% are recovered. That's about 24,000 a year that are not recovered. Using that 24,000 number, that is still about 65 a day.

    In 1997, youth 12 through 17 had crime victimization rates over two times higher than adults, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The overall rate of violent crime for youth ages 12 through 17 is 92 per 1,000, compared to 32 per 1,000 for adults and 38 per 1,000 for all persons.

    Victims 12 through 17 constitute 25% of all violent crime victims, according to the NCVS.
    The approximate total number of violent crime victims from birth through 17 is 2,883,000:

    2,101,000 twelve through 17 year olds
    782,000* birth through 11 year olds

    The approximate number of juvenile crime victims known to police each year is 849,000:

    619,000 twelve through 17 year olds
    230,000* birth through 11 year olds

    And those numbers are just for the U.S.

  94. Xenocles says

    There is more than one valid method of bringing up happy, healthy, well-adjusted children.

    I have never said otherwise. All the text you quoted from me shows only one thing for certain: that it is the judgement of the parents, not of the children, that is the deciding factor. A tyrant can still make good decisions that benefit his subjects, but he is the one making them. A family is not a democracy. The input of the children is advisory; it is nothing more than data that feeds the decision processes of my wife and me.

    You may perceive that your situation requires little intervention, and I would not argue with you from here. But if you were to say that you have no duty to watch at all, then I would call you delinquent because it remains your duty to ensure the proper level of intervention is being maintained and you cannot do that without some form of eyes on the situation. You may rely more on talking than on technology and that's fine. Maybe you have a third or fourth way that balance against those two. But if all the monitoring is set to zero surely you can agree that makes a bad parent.

  95. S.BEAM says

    I'm 23 and never had texting growing up didn't get it till last year. Until late highschool I only had dialup and access was of course heavily restricted because it tied up the phone lines. I didn't have my own computer until college and my parents for the most part let me do w/e on it by then. The only real thing they were crazy about was money, I'm pretty sure they had alerts set up to because I would be at college and I would buy a game online and within literally 5 minutes get a phone call asking why I was buying games when I had a test in 2 day(this happened basically every time, until I started buying with cash). But even when I was in highschool or at home from college they didn't filter my internet or even have programs installed to monitor what sites I visited, I was about as good as a kid you can get and never got into trouble, so outside of them worried about me spending too much time playing games instead of studying/working they were fine.

    This of course completely changed with my brother. He was a far more typical teenager, which of course shocked my parents. They still tend to lean more towards restricting prilages then heavy monitoring. It was nearly a constant cycle and still is to a lesser extent of my parents letting him slowly do w/e then them finding out he did X, them flipping out and punishing him with restrictions. The most severe of which has only been dealt out twice, which is temporary removal of bedroom door.

    In alot of ways my parents were very strick with me growing up and tried to lax up on my brother which gave him alot more of an entitled to mentality of always getting his way which lead to alot of problems later.

    I'm not really sure what I would do as a parent, except make sure that I am invovled in some fun and some teaching portion of their life, god knows kids want some fun portion that doesn't involve their parents and you don't need to hover over everything, but you can't be totally detached from anything your kid enjoys either. I feel like the kid has to trust the parent as an authority figure, but also as family someone who understands and loves…which of course means the parents have to actually understand them thus being at least a part of their fun life. I think that is the core of most of the problems they have with my brother is that he shares zero intrests with either of them, combined with my brother being a more quite person.

  96. Sertorius says


    You realize, right, that those numbers are almost entirely runaways and custody disputes? Runaways are very sad, but I don't think Ken's child is going to run away because he doesn't read her texts.

    As for crime victimizations, that includes everything. Parents beating their kids, schoolyard fights, muggings. Given that stranger kidnap/sex assault is less than 200 per year in the whole US, exactly what other crimes do you think can be prevented by parental snooping?

  97. says

    Actual, victimized children were kidnapped at a rate of 115 a year in 1999. Which is almost fifteen years ago. We're well below 1999 levels on all manner of violent crime – kidnappings, murders, sexual assault, etc – according to FBI statistics. You can't quote 1997 stats for "12-17 year olds as victims of crime" because that data's old and covers largely gang violence. And we're talking about using Find My Friends on your suburban kid's iPhone to make sure he's actually at Steve's house and not "Sapphire's."

  98. Allen says

    Monitor everything they do, and throw in that they have to wear an ankle bracelet with GPS, boxing gloves so they can't pick anything up, and ankle chains so they can't run very fast.

    With the one boy I often felt that way; with the younger one not so much.

    It really depends on the personality and behavior of the child. We started at a fairly strict level and relaxed it over time, based upon goals the boys had to meet.

  99. Arlight says

    Being a computer geek by trade, I've always let the kids know I could see anything they did on our computers. And, very much like my employer, the phrase "we can monitor you at any time" doesn't mean "we're watching everything you do."

    Having a kid that "ran away" for a week (it was a girlfriend thing) when he was a junior in high school changed our perspective. We stopped being nearly so lax and started really monitoring his online presence. He continued to hide things, used the school PC's and, in general, didn't really improve him behavior [even with | in spite of | because of ] increased monitoring (take your pick).

    There are reasons to monitor your kids communications. Just because they're not at risk of being kidnapped doesn't mean you don't want to know if that "movie over at Dave's house" they're going to is actually smoking pot in the park. Everyone that was ever a teen knows that you can't protect kids from the world or even themselves. That said, sticking your head in the sand, blindly claiming that you have to trust them and not even trying makes you're not a very good parent in my opinion.

  100. Sertorius says

    Arlight – I respect where you are coming from, but even in your post seem to admit that the monitoring did no good – just forced your son to communicate in ways you couldn't monitor. Is the damage to the relationship worth the minimal gain from the monitoring? I mean that as a serious question, coming from someone who would definitely support your cracking down hard on a teen who was smoking pot or lying as to whereabouts.

  101. iostream says

    "I speak from experience. Yes, that's exactly what my kid googled."
    This left me both surprised and amused a the same time :) Well, when I was a kid, I think I knew explicitly at that age that searching for something like this would be considered unacceptable, so I wouldn't do that.

    The sad part is that we now have to worry about possible intervention from "law enforcement" for something as silly and harmless as this.

  102. KWK says

    First, I never made the distinction that I was only looking out for stranger danger. You two did. Second, there happen to be 2 convicted pedophiles in the city/county I live in, so I think the extra precaution is warranted. Third, as someone who was victimized by a family member from the ages of 6 to 16, I take my children's safety seriously, and not just around strangers. It's your opinion that "less than 200" is an insignificant percentage. As someone from that insignificant percentage, I feel it's pretty significant and nothing you say will change that.

  103. Arlight says


    I think the trust was pretty well breached at that point. I can't say if extra monitoring did more good than harm. I can say for certain that, even at 17, even trying actively to be super-sly at hiding things, he still made mistakes, we still found out things about what he was planning versus what he was saying. And in the end, he still graduated high school in no small part because his mother and I took a very active role in making sure he was doing what needed to get done instead of hanging out with the kids that were smoking pot and ditching school. I'm not at all convinced the same would be said if we hadn't intervened in his life very aggressively. YMMV

  104. perlhaqr says

    I'm not sure monitoring is a great idea, because the most important thing to monitor for, "A Teenaged Kid Saying Something Stupid That Fucks Up His Life", a'la the "terroristic facebook post" has probably already happened by the time you've monitored it.

    Not having kids, it seems like the best answer would be to teach the kids how to behave, not to monitor them heavily to make sure they do.

  105. Erik B says

    It depends how much you trust your kid. I mean that seriously, some kids get themselves in trouble more frequently or don't think about consequences or lack common sense. Parents usually have a pretty good idea of their kids' propensities.

    I liked my own parents' approach (surprise surprise); I got a lot of freedom unless I showed I couldn't responsibly handle it.

  106. James Pollock says

    "Unlike some libertarians, I DO think exposure of children to internet pornography is a serious problem and something parents should do their best to stop. So I do think internet filters are a good thing."

    Internet filters are nearly useless, easily circumvented, and in any case not the correct method to to prevent children from accessing Internet pornography.
    Some problems simply do not have a technical solution, and this is one of them.
    There are only two methods that work reliably in preventing people from accessing Internet porn… first, a complete and total block on Internet access; second, people who do not want to access Internet porn.

  107. Christina says

    With a 17yog and 14yog (and an 8yob who only has a non-wireless iPod at this point), we have taken the approach of open discussion, both when mutually outlining boundaries (technological and otherwise) and when those boundaries are breached. Sometimes that discussion results in restrictions (like when our then 16yo didn't meet academic goals (homeschooling family) and it turned out she'd texted more than 5000 times in a three-week period), other times it results in an expansion of privileges because the boundaries are outgrown.

    We work to have an open relationship with a foundation of trust and respect, and expectations in both directions operate within that framework. Because, don't go kidding yourself — the kid is monitoring you, too, keeping track of your errors large and small, and although they can't ground you, they will enforce the same real (non-punitive) consequences upon you that fall upon them: damaged trust and damaged reputation.

    Our best parenting tool goes beyond NSA capabilities: it is the "you're trapped with me in the car for eighteen hours over the next three days" variety of waterboarding. It's amazing what kids will talk to you about when you can't look them in the eye.

    Good luck, Ken – the eldest is always the hardest, as you're trying to figure out new briar patches and how to navigate them…

  108. Linsider says

    "There are reasons to monitor your kids communications. Just because they're not at risk of being kidnapped doesn't mean you don't want to know if that "movie over at Dave's house" they're going to is actually smoking pot in the park. Everyone that was ever a teen knows that you can't protect kids from the world or even themselves. That said, sticking your head in the sand, blindly claiming that you have to trust them and not even trying makes you're not a very good parent in my opinion."
    Maybe there are reasons, but I think I didn't see them anywhere yet in this comment section.

    For example, in your comment you say that your kids do know that you are monitoring them, which automatically means that if they are going to smoke some pot instead of watching a movie, they will never mention that they will smoke pot in their e-mails or phone messages. I mean they are not stupid and, generally, they shouldn't be stupid enough to try pot either.

    I'm not saying that parents shouldn't control their kids at all. They definitely should be aware of most things that happen with their children. But monitoring their communications honestly seems to me most useless and rather harmful way of doing it, that also may create a false sense of security and control.

    I think, if your children trust you, you can explain them why they should never go or even talk with a stranger (including Internet), do drugs or behave like an idiot (I'm referring to "terrorism Facebook posts").

    I can see that a strong control may be necessary in some cases, but it's probably an extreme case rather than typical…

  109. Tony J says

    Neither of my latter two children have smartphones- they can have one when they can pay for it. Period. They do, however, have text-capable iPods, both have age-spoofed FB accounts, and e-mail. The FB accounts exist firstly because my then-wife got Very Tired of all these 9-year-olds sending her Friend requests, and secondly because the younger one of course (and rightly so) wanted one when reaching the same age as their sibling.

    All these are considered "privileges" in the Alacatraz sense: they may be withdrawn for bad behavior, bad grades, or because their parents are in a mood. The older one has had the iPod confiscated, FB and e-mail restricted twice each because of behavior issues (personal, rather than on-line). The younger one keeps misplacing the iPod, uses FB for games, and e-mail for Xbox & Wii, mostly. Both understand- and were explicitly told- mom & dad have their passwords to all of it and can read anything they like.

    So far, that's worked out just fine. Other than for the disciplinary issues, having that parental access allowed us to clamp down on an instance of cyber-bullying of the older child before it got out of hand.

    I'm sure boundaries will be pushed- the eldest is about to hit the final year of middle school and is already looking beyond to high school- but I think it's fair those boundaries be well-defined, first.

    If I'm not making sense, please excuse me. I'm a little light-headed from painkillers.

  110. James Pollock says

    "There are reasons to monitor your kids communications."
    There are. Whether there are reasons to monitor your kids' communications routinely is a slightly different question.

    Sure, if you get a phone call from another parent telling you that your daughter's been sending out selfies, then the need to monitor becomes apparent. Whether this possibility justifies routine monitoring even absent indications that it is likely would depend on the combination of the child, the parent, and the past experiences.

    I used a two-prong approach. Prong #1 was to assert that I can, at any time and without warning, seize the device in question and inspect the contents (laptop, cell, desktop, digital camera, Ipod, etc.) Prong #2 was to establish that I wasn't going to unless and until I had a reason to.
    I believe that in the general case, the way to protect someone in the long run is to make sure they know what the dangers are, how to assess if they are imminent, and then let them roam free within broad boundaries. Trying to "fence off" all the bad things in the world is ultimately not in the interest of children… they eventually have to learn to deal with the fact that bad things exist.

  111. a_random_guy says

    Two teenagers here, so we were recently in this phase. Raising children is a process: children grow and develop, and our challenge as parents is to adapt our parenting methods to fit. One of the most common parenting mistakes is to fail to adapt to the changing needs of your child.

    A baby has no privacy of any kind: you change its diapers and monitor it almost constantly. A toddler should be allowed to play on its own, and to explore and discover under supervision. A small child can be trusted to act appropriately, without supervision in certain situations.

    By the time children reach middle school, they should be largely trusted. Obviously, parents still have the right to intervene as necessary, but actually reading the child's private correspondence with his or her friends? This is more appropriate to a small child, and is entirely inappropriate.

    At this age, an occasional (read: every few months) check of the Internet sites visited should suffice. For example, through one such check I found one of my boys was playing a free game called something like "butts, boobs and beer", and explained why this was not appropriate. We have also had general discussions about Internet safety.

    I have never read his private email – imho that would be a serious violation of his personal privacy.

  112. Kathryn says

    It depends on the kid in question – really. People are individuals and some people aren't able to handle using the Internet responsibly ever and some are prepared for it when they're 10. Can they spell? Do they understand what "public" means? Do they understand what "private" means? Do they have the ability to judge what activities should be which and what entities they are dealing with are likely to keep agreements about their privacy? Do they understand the risks and benefits? (probably not, teenager brains are really, really inherently bad at risk calculation.) Do they know where to get help if they get into something they don't understand or can't handle?

    People are different, they have different skills, abilities, judgement and risk tolerance. Young people are in the process of learning how to be a functional member of society in the greater world. My parents were large proponents of independence and giving their children safer space to practice adult skills in. (Which lead to rules like "you can build the explosives if you do the math around the energy release and calculate the safe distance needed to set them off" and "No using the acetylene torch in the house – that's what the garage is for")

    All the approaches have pros and cons. Theirs worked well for me, where a more limiting one might not have. Know your kid, know that your job is to help them get to adulthood prepared to function as someone you can entrust the growth of civil society to. What are they ready for at 12?

  113. says

    My feeling is that close monitoring gives greater scope for misinterpreting something innocent, or at least harmless. That could be because the type of parent who is inclined to closely monitor is also the type of parent who thinks teenagers are chomping at the bit for the opportunity to partake in hard drugs and inappropriate sex (which may well be true for their teenagers) and will go in with that expectation, of course; if you're monitoring as a matter of course, you're already suspicious or thinking of your teenager as still a kid or both, and that attitude will affect how you interpret what you see.

  114. says

    I only monitor my children's texting and emails if they have given me a reason to, such as lying to me. I trust my children but if they have done something to make me not trust them, then I will monitor their lives.

  115. says

    "First, I never made the distinction that I was only looking out for stranger danger. You two did. Second, there happen to be 2 convicted pedophiles in the city/county I live in, so I think the extra precaution is warranted. Third, as someone who was victimized by a family member from the ages of 6 to 16, I take my children's safety seriously, and not just around strangers. It's your opinion that "less than 200" is an insignificant percentage. As someone from that insignificant percentage, I feel it's pretty significant and nothing you say will change that."

    This is very, very sad. There are *hundreds* of convicted pedophiles in my county. I let me kids play in public. saying less than 200 kids is a huge risk across tends of millions of kids indicate a high level of paranoia and a low level of math comprehension.

    The good news is that they're your kids, and if you want to be overbearing and overprotective, the worst I can do to you is disagree with you on the internet. I'll accept the level of observed risk and let me kids enjoying their childhood, instead of robbing them of their innocence in this crazy, blown-up stanger-danger helicopter generation that is predicated on misperceptions and anxiety.

  116. Lucy says

    My children first started out with a set of very clear rules, one of which was I had the passwords to all accounts they were signed up for with the expectation that it was my role to monitor them. When I saw they were navigating around ok I backed off. There were a few things that came up, which happens when kids are growing up in the digital age. One example is when my son was 8, he really wanted a specific kind of connector cable for a Gameboy. He matter of factly set himself up with an ebay account and ordered one. He innocently told me a few days later that I could take it off his wish list because he got one already. Well part of his consequence was that he had to wait for it ship from China. It was a month. For my son that was effective.

    I learned some things about my daughter's behavior also that I never discussed with her because they were part of growing up kinds of things. She has grown up into a fine young lady with good choices in friends and problem solving. The trick for me wasn't what to monitor, but when to intervene.

    As a parent I felt it was important to give my children freedom to have experiences, but also imperative that I not be ignorant in case of a crisis or unforseen circumstance.

  117. kmc says

    I have one toddler and one fetus, so I can only speak from a theoretical point, but I think we will lean towards no monitoring and deviate from that mainly based on previous experience with a particular kid. The reason I think that's probably how it will come to pass is that we both grew up as techie kids in fairly techie households (me more than my husband) and there was precisely zero monitoring. Except the one time when I was in a chat room and I asked my dad, "What does this guy mean? I don't understand," and my dad responded to the guy, "<—- jailbait" and the guy quickly exited the chat. I still didn't understand. Anyway, if our kids show the same combination of innocence and inherently safe behavior that we did ("Why would I give someone my address? I just want to keep playing SimCity."), we'll stay away from monitoring. We will probably encourage social computer use to happen in family areas of the house, and we intend to make them very comfortable with good internet use before they're old enough for their own smartphones, but we may also end up doing, say, periodic reviews with them to see how things are going. Or maybe they'll be crazy and we won't understand them at all and we'll read all their online traffic, who knows?