Monitoring our children's smartphones is a necessary evil

Monitoring our children's smartphones is a necessary evil

Summary: Should parents spy on their kids? The issue is not "Should we" but "How much".

Monitoring children smartphones necessary evil

I am not a parent. I don't presume to know better than a parent does about raising their own child. I consider myself to be pretty arrogant and opinionated, but not that much.

What I do know is that I am frequently consulted by my friends, family and readers who are parents that are very concerned about the welfare of their children particularly when they are using all forms of technology, and that includes mobile devices and social networks. 

I also believe that it is not solely the responsibility of the parent to protect their children, it is also incumbent among law enforcement as well as educators, school systems and extended families and friends to provide assistance with this process.

We need to return to an earlier age where communities and extended families cared collectively for children, instead of shouldering all of the responsibility on the parent, who cannot necessarily be there all of the the time for them.

Parents raising their children are analogous to being their own government in many respects, and they set the rules and laws by which their own children must obey. Protection does not equate to privacy for children.

Children are a special case. Until they become legally emancipated or no longer live in their guardian or parent's household, they are under the protection of their parents who (should) have a keen interest in their care and safety. 

Before we can even entertain the topic of privacy for our children, I think that we need to set our expectations for what adult privacy is.

Based on what we know is happening at the highest levels of our own government, it's obviously unrealistic to set expectations of personal privacy from entities like the NSA, the CIA and the FBI these days due to national security requirements and the technology they have in their own possession.

However, if we are talking about physical and electronic privacy from our neighbors, from our employers and other businesses and corporations, I believe we have the right to secure our own privacy as individuals using enabling technology and other means. 

That being said, I do not think we should expect that these entities will necessarily respect our privacy by default, so we must try to enforce it and guarantee it ourselves.

Although children are not employees, the relationship between child and parent as it pertains to the use of information technology is not unlike that of employee and employer. 

Let's examine this a bit more, though. I have a corporate laptop that is an asset owned by my employer, which is not unusual for those of us working in technology. I also have smartphones and tablets that are enrolled in messaging and other services connected to my employer's networks, and there are policies that are enforced on them to ensure security compliance and other things if I want to continue to use those networks. 

I fully expect all communications using those assets and networks to be monitored. I also expect and I am fully aware that the social networks I participate on are also monitored. I know not to harass people nor represent myself or my employer in such a fashion that would have negative impact on my employer.

So I am especially careful about what I say and follow a set of rules and explicit guidelines that have been set down for me because I like and wish to continue to enjoy being employed.

Although children are not employees, the relationship between child and parent as it pertains to the use of information technology is not unlike that of employee and employer. Employees derive benefits from their employers and use assets and networks that are paid for by their employer. Similarly, many children are provided assets (mobile devices, mobile data plans, computers and broadband internet access) that are paid for by their parents. 

I expect children who have mobile and computing assets that are owned and paid for by their parents to operate under similar rules set by corporate IT departments. They should be well aware their parents, school systems and law enforcement are capable of monitoring their communications, and should conduct themselves accordingly, or face the consequences of having their privileges revoked as well as being subject to other disciplinary action.

All of this being said, I do not believe a fundamental right to privacy extends to minors, particularly as it applies to device usage. They have the right to be protected by law from harm, they have a right to an education as well as a number of other things guaranteed under our Constitution. But not privacy while living under their parents' roof or engaged in activities on school grounds.

We also need to stop thinking of all of this as it pertains to children as surveillance and instead as tools which enable parents as well as schools to effectively manage and monitor device usage among minors.

Today there is no good monitoring and device management solution targeted for use with minors, as all of them are centered around corporate security and policy enforcement. 

However, this is not to say that the current SaaS solutions such as Cisco Meraki, Citrix XenMobile, Microsoft Windows Intune, Good Technology and any number of others cannot be adapted to solve the problems I have detailed above. A good MDM and ADM solution for family device management should include:

  • Control over when and where devices & services may be used by parents and educators (i.e., set devices to voice and text services only when on school grounds)
  • Service & application management which would entail setting restrictions on which applications can be used and installed, when they can be used as well as event management & logging @ service API level.
  • Comprehensive geo-location reporting & logging
  • Keystroke logging from every application and service as well as intelligent incident reporting and escalation when specific thresholds are met or exceeded.
  • A self-reporting "Panic Button" that would allow the minor to alert parents, educators and authorities when they are the recipient or observer of material of a sexual nature or where cyber-bullying events are occurring.

In addition to these tools, I believe a child as well as their parents should be made to understand the risks associated with using social networks and mobile technology and why their parents are so concerned about their welfare.

That being said, I do not expect children of all ages to fully comprehend this or fully appreciate why it is being done. If we are to take the results of a Microsoft survey of 1000 parents regarding Internet use by their children at face value, then it is clear that they are being exposed in an unsupervised fashion to the web and social networks at far too early an age.

[Disclaimer: I am an employee of Microsoft.]

We need "Device Ed" classes in public and private schools that teach children as well as their parents about the dangers of the internet & social networks, cyber-bullying as well as other forms of inappropriate behavior that not only should be reported to parents but also the authorities and school administrators.

Parents and schools can monitor, but children should also have outlets to discuss their concerns with parents and schools. It's a two-way street.

And while as a society may have concerns about our government monitoring our personal and business communications, the reality is that only when certain thresholds are met do we as individuals become a subject for examination "under the microscope" as it were. 

Similarly, the routine texting and gossiping between teenagers is unlikely to be of interest to parents. However cyber-bullying and exchanging communications of an explicit sexual nature absolutely are. It's that small percentage of activity that a child should understand is what gives their parents concern.

The area of concern falls under activities that occur as a result of deindividuation, which in the discipline of social psychology is a group phenomenon of losing of self-awareness and thus makes it increasingly likely for individuals to commit antisocial behavior because personal values can be compromised when participating in large groups. 

This includes cyber-bullying which is becoming an epidemic in the United States, as well as the overwhelming peer-pressure for teens to engage in and expect sexual activity.

Aside from the deindividuation I also believe that among Generation Y, mobile devices are being used to replace traditional forms of communication such as face to face or telephone conversation and e-mail, and in their intense use of social networking services may actually worsen pre-existing ASD conditions such as ADHD. It may also have a negative impact on a child's interest in reading.

In short, there is overwhelming evidence that they may have a serious negative impact on their learning processes and overall social, emotional and psychological development.

One only has to look at the headline news to find it.

On October 15, 2013, two young girls, in Polk County, FL, Katelyn Roman and Guadalupe Shaw, ages 12 and 14, were brought up on 3rd-degree felony charges of aggravated stalking after it was determined that their year long in-person and cyber-bullying spree on Facebook, the Kik Messenger service and contributed to the suicide of 7th-grader Rebecca Ann Sedwick on September 10.

I have to ask myself if Sedwick's suicide could have been prevented had her mobile devices and those of the cyber-bullies and her classmates were enrolled with the mobile device management technology I describe had been in place.

We are not likely to know the full details of what happened for some time, and I expect this to be a landmark case in establishing anti-cyber bullying efforts at many school systems.

But had mobile device management technology been in place monitoring her harassers, their parents and potentially their educators and the authorities would have been made aware of these things and they could have intervened, and stopped the bullying earlier and saved their children from having their own lives marred from making very stupid, destructive mistakes that they will have to spend their entire lives regretting.

The shame that these parents as well as the schools and the educators will bear who could have prevented this tragedy will be unfathomable.

In my opinion this is no longer an argument over ethics and parental trust and slippery slopes. The family mobile device management technology is going to come because parents are going to demand that it exists, period. Our prime concern and areas of discussion should now focus on how exactly the technology should be applied in individual households and in schools.

In short, it's not a "Should we" spy on our children but a "How much."

Do you monitor your children's internet and mobile device usage? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobility, Security, Smartphones, Tablets, Education


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Agreed

    It's certainly helpful if adults other than parents are keeping eyes on adolescents (this is the biggest advantage of small towns and stable neighborhoods), the responsibility of parents (both legal and moral) is primary. But all this is going to take some time to work out the expectations as the rising generation is the first to grow up with Star Trek style personal communicators (I would never have dreamed of having such a thing when I was young).
    John L. Ries
  • One interim partial solution (for Android users, at least)

    Agree with all of the above, with the caveat that it needs to be under PARENTAL control, not dictated by gov't mandates or some such ridiculosity.

    Haven't found a complete solution, but for Android phones, we use Cerberus, which does the following for us:

    - location tracking
    - get a screenshot at any time (without the child knowing)
    - get a picture, front or back camera, at any time (w/o them knowing)
    - get a video etc.
    - get their call log
    - get their SMS log
    - lock, changing lock code
    - record audio (w/o them knowing)
    - send msg (like xwall, appears on screen, optionally read to them)
    - start whooping siren (alarm)
    - reboot
    - wipe

    Then, K9 lets you control access to the Play store, and Youtube; and has a child-safe browser.

    So that's a partial solution, at least. It'll get better.
  • I agree

    we are parents, our responsibility doesn't stop at the browser window or app store.
  • May not help

    As the parent of three, I can tell you that kids are very inventive when it comes to doing things that their parents do want them to do. OK, so we monitor the email and phones, etc. There are solutions. Keep a fairly bland Facebook account with one email id to show their parents, and do their regular activity on another. Purchase an unlocked phone, and transfer the SIM card back and forth, for the same purpose. Or purchase a cheap tablet. If there are too many parental controls at home, they will go elsewhere, including free wifi at McDonalds, Barnes and Noble, etc.

    The only way you will be able to influence your kids is to have a good relationship with them. When we first got a wireless router for the house, my youngest son would occasionally watch highly age-inappropriate music videos. I explained to him that I really didn't want to block all music sites on his computer, so he would have to limit his activity if he wanted to watch ANY music videos. Kind of like how we don't lock our socks drawers, but everybody doesn't go around taking each others socks. It actually worked.

    There is a very delicate balance
    • Brilliant!

      spdblp, as father and grandfather and probably soon great-grandfather (20+ older grandchildren, 5 year youngest) I was very, very worried till I read your message. Thank you. I see there are still responsible but well balanced parents around that understand their children and use the same old human links to protect and respect.
    • IF your children are working to deceive you then cut them off.

      You can still remove the smartphone and the computers from their rooms. You can ground them. Be the adult in the relationship
    • Yes, that's it.

      "The only way you will be able to influence your kids is to have a good relationship with them." Precisely. Raise your kids to make intelligent decisions and to respect themselves and others and you won't need to do nearly as much monitoring. Smartphones and other devices are not baby sitters and are no substitute for actual parenting. IMO they should be thought of in much the same way as a car: useful tools that can only be used properly when you've achieved a certain level of maturity and have learned how to use them responsibly. Giving (say) an unmonitored smartphone to an eight year old is just plain irresponsible.
  • WHY?

    Why do small children need smartphones? Why can't parents be parents instead of being mindless consumers buying everything that corporations and the media tell them to buy?

    Are we going to continue to exploit the poorest in the world just so that, one day, parents will be able to buy their children Rolls-Royces, too? Of course, then, we'll have to discuss how to keep children safe on the roads and how it's, collectively, our responsibility.

    "Insanity", "brainwashing" and "stupidity" are three words that comes to mind.

    No, the solution is NOT more damn surveillance - children are entitled to their privacy as much as adults are. The solution is for parents and society to get their priorities right.
    • Too many split families

      It's extremely helpful for the child to have a communication device that is NOT dependent on the other parent. *My* divorce was amicable, but not many are.
  • Absolutely !

    Kids are smarter than their parents, so the parents need to go the extra mile... kids may not like it, but its necessary.
    • Kids aren't smarter, parents are lazy

      nough said
  • Sometimes the parents are part of the problem

    I've seen situations where the parent of a bully didn't see the behavior as bullying at all and couldn't even begin to grasp why it could be construed as bullying.
  • Agree 100%...

    We have IDs and passwords. I inspect periodically... there is NOTHING wrong with Parents monitoring kids behavior on FB, Twitter and texting IMO it's part of being a good parent and teaching along with the monitoring - that's important.
    • Absolutely right - nicely said

      I cannot agree with you more
  • Google Apps for Education


    As you're not a parent, you may not be aware that many school districts (like mine) are HERDING children into these social networks.

    In Fairfax County Virginia, outside Washington DC, the county is giving ALL kids in 3rd grade and above free "Google Apps for Education" accounts. These are "opt out" accounts which means EVERYONE gets one, unless you specifically request that your child does not get one.

    What the parents don't realize is that these accounts include EMAIL accounts (for a 3rd grader!!!) which are supposedly protected by a "walled garden" that prevents 3rd parties who are not whitelisted from contacting their children without their knowledge.

    I've attended PTA meetings to discuss this issue, but the simple fact is, many parents do not attend these meetings, and lack the technical savvy to understand that there is no such thing as a "walled garden" when it comes to email, which is an inherently insecure protocol. They don't understand DKIM, and how it works, and how easy it easy to forge email headers.

    I've had the county pull all 3 of my kids from this on-line system (and I'm a paying Google App customer for my own business!). I'm a software developer by trade, but I'll be damned if my 8 or 10 year old is going to have an on-line email account, with all that entails, administered by well-intentioned but woeful unprepared county administrators, who don't know the difference between POP, SMTP, or IMAP. Call me "old fashioned" but my kids can use thumb drive technology if they have to bring an electronic file to school.

    I created a blog a few months back to share what I found with some friends in my neighborhood about GAE. Perhaps other folks will find it useful:

    • It is your responsibility to be aware.

      Nothing your school district does should escape your attention. Do you attend back-to-school nights? Do you engage and challenge your child's teachers, the administrators, and your local politicians? You should.

      Raising your children is solely your responsibility.
      • Yes, of course

        My wife was President of the school's PTA for two years. We both volunteer and help regularly. We're very involved, and the point is that the school district has enrolled 180,000 children in a program which puts children online without advanced parental consent.

        Compare this to how the school handles other situations. They require us sign a release form before they'll send our child on a field trip to a local museum. They won't administer aspirin to without a doctor's note. But then they have no compunction to inform me before putting my child online without so much as a simple PTA meetings to advise this is what's coming? That's BS.

        So yes, it's a parent's job to be aware. That doesn't absolve school administrations from the repercussions of putting my kid on-line before I permit it.

        I don't want my 3rd grader -- 8 years old -- online. PERIOD. And they shouldn't have done it without asking first.
  • Headline reveals root cause.

    You have inadvertently stumbled onto root cause in that parents do feel that keeping an eye on their children's activities is a "necessary evil" or even worse they feel it is "too much trouble". It is no "spying" to be involved in all apects of your child's socialization. Children are not socialized by age 21 much less by ages 16, 14, 12 or God bless-em 10. Parents you think that their child is more "mature" and can be "trusted" are either deluding themselves or worse, they're making an excuse to abdicate their responsibility.

    Smartphones are but one tool pulling parents apart. The PC, Game Consoles, Multiple TV rooms are other challenges but the real culprit is a generation of parents who willingly ignore their children for hours at a time as they sit in their room away oversight. Children learn from parents only when they are with the parent.
  • NSA to the rescue

    Have no fear. The NSA is monitoring American communications to make sure that everyone is thinking and officially sanctioned thought.