When our son turned 12, we gave him a phone and allowed him to use social media, with a condition: He had no right to privacy. We would periodically and without warning read his texts and go through his messenger app. We would follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (though we wouldn’t comment or tag him — we’re not monsters). We wouldn’t ambush him about what we read and we wouldn’t attempt to embarrass him. Anything that wasn’t dangerous or illegal, we would ignore.
My wife and I never wanted to play big brother. Before my son entered middle school, worries about kids and the internet struck me as a little hysterical, adults’ own teenage mischief misremembered and idealized: things were so much easier/better/simpler back then. They weren’t, of course, but the wall between adolescent life and adulthood used to be sturdier and less readily breached. As much as adults think they understand children now, they misinterpret the meaning of teenage life all the time. They underplay the danger, as in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Canadian high school student who was assaulted at a party in 2011 and then mercilessly harassed afterwards online. Police didn’t take her seriously and refused to prosecute the boys involved. Two years later, Rehtaeh died following a suicide attempt. Or sometimes adults overstate the threat. Child pornography laws are, in some cases, so far-reaching that they snare kids instead of adult predators. One example from 2015: A 17-year-old boy in the U.S. was charged with four felonies and faced being registered as a sex offender after consensually exchanging sexy photos with his 16-year-old girlfriend.
We were concerned about our son’s savvy. He intuitively grasped the power of online life, but not its weight and consequence
We were concerned about our son’s savvy. He intuitively grasped the power of online life, but not its weight and consequence, and was apt to do something he would later regret. The specifics of that “something” weren’t so much the issue. We anticipate teenage rebellion and exploration: Dating, sex, alcohol, lying, cutting school — my own pre-internet adolescence was messily seasoned with binge-drinking, sex and mushrooms. But we worry about that something’s indelibleness, its documentation and distribution through uncontrollable channels. We worry that an impulsive comment of his would mushroom and hurt someone else. We worry that he will be on the receiving end of an impulsive comment. We worry about other well-meaning adults just like us, spying, just like us, on their own child and finding something — rightly or wrongly — improper about our son’s conduct. It isn’t trouble that scares me so much, it’s trouble’s unpredictable half-life.
Surveilling my son seemed like a betrayal. I’m not nostalgic for my own adolescence, but I did get to experience it privately, and mostly free from scrutiny. My parents’ knowledge of my life and whereabouts was often sketchy, and a missing, unsupervised hour could be accounted for with a story about a delayed bus or an after-school meeting. I got caught, of course — once, my parents came home late and found me passed out after a party, stinking of alcohol (a stolen tumbler of crème de menthe from a friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet), my contact lens stuck in my mascara-smeared eyes. But I never had the sense of my parents crouched in an unmarked van, listening to my bugged conversations through earphones, tracking my movements with CCTV. My adolescence was the process of delineating my life from theirs, fostering my tastes and preferences separate from them, screwing up outside of their sightlines.
Very quickly after we started watching our son’s activities online, I began to feel uncomfortable. I’d look at his Twitter feed a couple times a week, which was endearing (he’s asked several NBA players to follow him; they haven’t) and monotonous (a lot of NBA videos). We rarely came across anything of consequence: school gossip, tentative flirting, complaints about teachers and parents, memes and inside jokes. But I felt like I was seeing too much. The banality of these interactions felt more intimate than coming across something genuinely scandalous. We could justify watching him if it turned up something dangerous. In the absence of trouble, I felt like a creep.
Middle schoolers are sweet and intense and sometimes cruel. Mostly they’re raw, caught between the old openness of childhood, and the new self-consciousness of puberty. It’s a delicate moment that should be beyond adult scrutiny, shielded from a potential Hawthorne effect — when you watch someone, you can’t help but shape what they do. Preteens and teenagers are, by nature, quicksilver. One day, a rejection levels them, the next, they’re on to a new friend. Trying on different ways of being is how they figure out who they are. Identities are performed and recorded in public, where they now remain long after being shed and discarded.
Despite my own well-meaning intentions to protect my son, what I’ve struggled with in surveilling him has been the impossibility of forgetting
In legal proceedings, there’s a reason why media doesn’t publish the names of underage victims and perpetrators, and why their histories are scrubbed. This official forgetting is to protect them, to offer a grace period in which what they do or what’s done to them won’t be used to define them forever. Even still, official forgetting is only an ideal. Despite my own well-meaning intentions to protect my son, to pre-empt any serious trouble, what I’ve struggled with in surveilling my son has been the impossibility of forgetting, of not seeing what should be private and his.
To watch children is to be complicit in the removal of their agency over what they wish to reveal. Children aren’t alone in this; we all face it now. But for my son and his friends, there is a certainty of being watched their entire lives. As my wife and I scroll through timelines and read texts, I wonder who else might be doing so, and to what end.
A number of other parents I know do their own version of reconnaissance: checking search histories, installing blocking software, locking away phones overnight. We stoke each other’s fears. If you have a child in middle school now, it’s almost inevitable that at some point another parent will tell you about “the blow-job picture” — an image, discovered on a child’s phone, of a girl, maybe in grade eight or nine, performing oral sex on a boy in her class. The details vary in the telling, but it’s usually told third-hand, from somebody some parent knows who heard it from someone else; I’ve been told about it a half-dozen times, including at a party just the other night. At times, it’s held up as evidence of rampant promiscuity. Or else it’s an exhibit of peer pressure, possibly coercion, or of a girl servicing a boy for his pleasure, not hers.
Without hearing from the girl and boy directly, what I do know is that it’s wrong for anyone else to have seen it. The image was stolen, exploited by other kids for their purposes (shock, shaming, status, envy) and adults for theirs (to confirm their assumption that kids are out of control). From knowledge of the picture alone, it’s impossible to interpret it correctly, to know what it meant for the girl and for the boy involved, whether it was traumatic or a joke, embarrassing or triumphant, unwanted or enjoyed, or some combination. All that can be known is that this moment is no longer theirs alone, if it ever was in the first place.
Recently, historians of East German society have looked into the systemic surveillance that was a normal part of life during the communist regime. The mass network of official Stasi informants was well known; what’s only begun to be understood now is how common it was for regular citizens to voluntarily, even eagerly, report on their neighbors and friends. Often this wasn’t out of loyalty to the state, but spite and personal jealousy. A spouse’s extramarital affairs and a colleague’s promotions were regularly registered with police. One historian credits this ambient, ever-present surveillance for East Germany’s stability and cohesion: “By sharing such information, East Germans hoped to avoid potential problems and misunderstandings in the future.” According to a story in Der Spiegel, files were kept on teenagers for infractions like, “wears Western clothes,” “exhibits affinity for punk music,” “demonstrates pacifist attitudes.” Soon the smallest act of individuality, the tiniest rebellion of personality, came to be seen as subversive.
I’ve mostly stopped checking up on my son, delegating the job to my wife. Knowing the minutiae of his life was too weird for me, too jarring to square the kid I knew with the person he was with his friends. At some point, likely next year, when he enters high school and we feel more confident of his judgment, we’ll cut him loose, let him live his own life without surveillance. Our surveillance, at least.