When I was a student, my parents learned what grades I got in class when I brought home my report cards.
In the Chicago Public School system, students don’t need to bring home a piece of paper anymore, because their grades are regularly recorded and updated on a website. A website that both students and parents have access to. If you want to find out how your child did on their latest test, you just log right in.
Or at least, most parents just log right in. I don’t.
When I got the email inviting me to sign up for the system, I asked my son how he’d feel if I checked his grades online. He looked up from his phone and thought about it for a moment. “Yeahhh,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
So I didn’t. If I want to know how he’s doing in school or what grade he has in a particular class (as I occasionally do), I don’t log in. I just ask him.
New technologies have made it easier and easier for parents to keep tabs on their kids’ activities and locations, and there’s a huge incentive for parents to use these resources to monitor their children both on and offline. The rationale? Children are safer when you know what they’re doing, and they’ll be more responsible if they know you’re watching.
But constantly violating our children’s boundaries doesn’t generally make them safer or more responsible. It often makes them angry and mistrustful. And that mistrust can put them in danger, no matter how closely you think you’re watching them.
The variety of ways parents can check up on their kids these days is bewildering and more than a little Orwellian. Adults have the ability to be in near-constant communication with their kids through their phones; many of my son’s friends get in trouble if they don’t respond instantly to parental texts. Certain phone apps allow parents to track their child’s physical location via GPS. Others allow you to monitor your child’s social media activity, YouTube viewing habits, emails and text messages, and send you automatic alerts if your child does something the app thinks is dangerous. There are even apps that tell you how fast your teen is driving, apps that shut down a child’s phone after an hour of use, and apps that block gambling and adult sites.
Many of these apps can be set up to monitor secretly, so your kids don’t know you’re watching them. (Though they’ll probably figure it out pretty quickly when you call and yell at them for speeding.) And if parents want to control their child’s online activities through less-advanced means, they can simply take away the kid’s phone.
You can’t teach your kid to value consent while simultaneously violating theirs.
Of course, no parent wants their child to drive too fast or be a victim of online bullying. But it’s impossible to keep our kids safe all the time in every way. Monitoring them constantly makes them miserable — and can even put them at risk if it erodes their trust in their parents.
When you spy on your child without their permission, you teach them that adults and authority figures have the right to violate their privacy. And as the Me Too movement has taught us, that’s a very dangerous lesson to pass along.
One reason we don’t monitor our son’s phone (or read his texts, or look at his grades) without permission is we want him to know that his boundaries and his consent are important to us. I want him to know he has very clear personal space. I want him to know that people who get in that space without his consent are in the wrong, that he can and should speak up and push back if adults or peers do something he’s uncomfortable with.
If I’m constantly in his face, how can my son learn that he shouldn’t let people get in his face? You can’t teach your kid to value consent while simultaneously violating theirs.
Perhaps more importantly, monitoring your child contradictorily makes it less likely you’ll know what’s actually going on with them ― because the best way to learn what your kid is doing and thinking and who they’re hanging out with isn’t to track them with an app. It’s to talk to them. Our son trusts us, in part because we’re not constantly taking his phone away or sneaking through his social media apps.
As a result, he’s more willing to tell us what’s going on with his life (for better or worse). When he started high school and was having anxiety issues, he told us. Those issues went away, but if they hadn’t, we’d have been able to take the appropriate next steps. He tells us what shows he’s watching, even if they’re wildly inappropriate (he just watched “Breaking Bad”). He tells us when YouTube recommends he watch Ben Shapiro videos, and we talk as a family about why Ben Shapiro is awful. He tells us what he’s learning in sex ed class. Just the other day, he mentioned that he’d dated one of his friends two years ago. We admittedly would’ve liked to have known this at the time, because parents are nosy like that. But we found out eventually.
Different kids are different, and our son is naturally more open with adults in general (and his parents in particular) than some teens. But I know he’d be a lot less open with us if he felt like we were constantly hovering over him waiting to punish him for a bad grade, or a problematic HBO show, or an inappropriate text.
If someone installed spy software on my computer or phone, I’d be resentful and more than just a little paranoid. I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about my life or my problems or anything at all with whoever was tracking me. Kids are the same way. Everybody needs space to themselves. Parents who take that away from their children aren’t keeping them safe; they’re stalking them ― and quite possibly harming them in the process.
Knowing how my son did on his last math test the moment his teacher uploads the grade won’t make that much of a difference in the long run. But teaching him that he deserves to have his privacy respected is something that will protect him in life better than any app could.
Noah Berlatsky is the author, most recently, of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.