The Undercover Parent [Telecom]

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR The Undercover Parent

By HARLAN COBEN March 16, 2008

Ridgewood, N.J.

NOT long ago, friends of mine confessed over dinner that they had put spyware on their 15-year-old son's computer so they could monitor all he did online. At first I was repelled at this invasion of privacy. Now, after doing a fair amount of research, I get it.

Make no mistake: If you put spyware on your computer, you have the ability to log every keystroke your child makes and thus a good portion of his or her private world. That's what spyware is - at least the parental monitoring kind. You don't have to be an expert to put it on your computer. You just download the software from a vendor and you will receive reports - weekly, daily, whatever - showing you everything your child is doing on the machine.

Scary. But a good idea. Most parents won't even consider it.

Maybe it's the word: spyware. It brings up associations of Dick Cheney sitting in a dark room, rubbing his hands together and reading your most private thoughts. But this isn't the government we are talking about - this is your family. It's a mistake to confuse the two. Loving parents are doing the surveillance here, not faceless bureaucrats. And most parents already monitor their children, watching over their home environment, their school.

Today's overprotective parents fight their kids' battles on the playground, berate coaches about playing time and fill out college applications - yet when it comes to chatting with pedophiles or watching beheadings or gambling away their entire life savings, then...then their children deserve independence?


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***** Moderator's Note *****

I once had the good and/or bad luck to pick up a phone while my son was telling one of his friends "My parents will believe anything". A few minutes later, he asked to visit , but I took the time to check and found out he actually wanted to go and hang out with

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Monty Solomon
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When I was a young teen I was about as goody-goody as they came. But I still had a strong sense of privacy. I wanted to take my telephone calls in private and I didn't want my parents going through my personal papers. If I found my parents going through my school notes or my desk or listening to my phone calls I'd be upset. When I got my first job I thought of my paycheck and bank account as my own business, not my parents. There were a great many things I did share with my parents (I had no secrets) but I always felt I was making a choice to share them.

Some of my friends' parents were much stricter, and whether necessarily so or not, it bothered me.

Some of my teachers over time were extra strict with classroom rules. When I had teachers like that I felt like violating the rules. In junior high we had up and down staircases, and I wanted to go the opposite direction just for the spite of it. I think kids whose parents were overly strict rebelled against it.

I find the idea of monitoring the computer or using a cellphone as a "Lojack" for kids troubling. If a kid is running around the wrong way or with the wrong people electronic ankle bracelets won't solve it. Part of growing up is testing and stretching the limits.

For every restriction we put on kids they will find a way to beat them. I don't want our kids to grow up so used to beating restrictions and taking punishments that they see it is as merely a part of life. In other words, I want kids to make proper choices because it is the _right thing_ to do, rather than because otherwise they'll get caught and be punished. I don't want a kid to grow up focused on how to beat the system. Because he will beat it until it gets too serious.

If a kid is savy enough to get on the Internet, he should be savy enough to "say no" to come-ons and other hazards. Unfortunately, I think more than a few kids put themselves at risk because they choose to. We as society need to address that issue.

What bothers me about monitoring is that it always seems to start off with some limited innocent purpose, but later grows and is used for more purposes beyond the original justification. Another concern is that there are many people out there with selfish, greedy, or evil motives to exploit monitoring done by others. Information is valuable. (Remember how a major corporation got the phoneco to give them employees' _home_ call records?)

Suppose your child is applying to elite college and they're able to pull up some "indiscretion" the kid did in 10th grade (e.g. one conviction for underage drinking). I suppose a college wouldn't want an alcoholic or junkie coming in its freshman class, but I'm not sure I like the idea of knowing every gory detail of a kid's private high school life either.

Likewise, when your child is done college and applies for a corporate job--would we want a corporation digging that deep into your child's college and even high school past? I assure you, some personnel officers would love that opportunity "to protect the interests of the company".

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