Safeguarding or surveillance?

While children are increasingly plugged-in, parents fear that their every encounter may lead to danger. It’s our role to protect them, but does that mean the odd casual glance at their phone is acceptable, or should we consider rigging a camera in their bedroom?

Today’s children are digital natives. How many 3 year olds wouldn’t instinctively swipe at a screen expecting it to respond like a tablet? How many 8 year olds haven’t tried to cajole their parents into buying them an iPhone for Christmas? Though Facebook has a minimum age limit of 13, studies have shown that a vast number of 9 to 12 year olds have their own profiles. So it’s no surprise that many parents react by wanting to monitor their child’s online life. But it is a contentious issue, and there’s a watery line somewhere between monitoring their activity – to safeguard them – and indulging in Big Brother surveillance.

Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth University believes monitoring children is an invasion of privacy:

“My fear is that as young people tend to be ‘early adopters’ of new technology and parents feel they can’t keep up, they look to others to provide solutions for things that should be discussed and explored in the home. What technology can replace a good old-fashioned conversation and maybe some sanctions for unacceptable behaviour?

“Filtering or monitoring could be used as part of a discussion to get agreement between parent and child about what acceptable boundaries are, why there might be concerns about different types of content, how their child’s peers communicate with each other… However, when used covertly and without a child’s consent, the message being given to them is “we don’t trust you and you have no right to privacy”.

A recent report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists points out that ‘Digital technology, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, is now a central part of young people’s lives, for information, entertainment and communication.’ The report goes on to suggest that operating surveillance could indeed leave children feeling they are not trusted.

Claire Perry, the Conservative MP for Devizes controversially argued last year that children have no right to keep their messages private and that parents ought to feel empowered enough to demand access to them. And she is not alone in this view. A swathe of new technologies are currently being marketed at anxious parents in the UK, promising peace of mind about the threats that exist online.

Now you can access your child’s mobile phone at any time to make sure they aren’t being cyber-bullied, or install sophisticated spyware, which allows every text (in and out, even those that have been deleted) from their mobile phone to show on yours. You can monitor what they are looking at online (without their knowledge) to ensure they aren’t seeing inappropriate content. And of course, there’s cameras. It’s the modern day equivalent of reading your child’s diary and more than a little Orwellian.

“We run the risk, in our concern for protecting our children, of placing them in an environment where they have no right to privacy. On the one hand we are telling children to protect their passwords, not share their information with others, make sure their ‘digital assets’ are kept safe. Yet then we are saying ‘unless its your family’.” Says Phippen.

The idea that privacy isn’t relevant to children within the family presents some worrying attitudes in the balance between protection and trust. And yet surely trust can only kick in when a child is old enough to make measured judgments about who they are in contact with. And at what age is that shift? These days being online is part of the Key Stage 1 curriculum, and 5 year olds are being set internet based homework. If, aged 7 or 8, you buy your child a phone in order for them to communicate with you about after school clubs or download music and snapchat with friends then, like it or not, the floodgates are open.

The age at which children can adopt an expectation of privacy has no definitive answer. So is the solution just to not let them have access the internet unless you are sitting guard? Can you feasibly hover over every online homework assignment to ensure they don’t stray into the unknown? Of course not. Which begs the question, where do you draw the line?

Have you taken steps to track or monitor your child’s cyber life? Do you use a device to locate them? Where should parents draw the line?