Parental Surveillance in the Age of the Internet of Things

by adrienne debigare

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) recently discovered spyware software that police officers around the country are distributing to neighborhood parents, free of charge. The software, called ComputerCOP, can secretly scan files and folders on its host computer. It also monitors all web traffic on a user or users, logs every keystroke a user makes, and keeps all this information in a folder on the user’s machine. It can then send this data to a third party, unencrypted server to notify parents of certain keywords being used. Aside from the technological shortcomings of a product like this lies the ethical debate of when, or how much, parents should monitor their children.

Ubiquitous and Granular Access

A range of surveillance software and hardware are available to modern parents. A smart-watch style device, called Filip, allows parents to track their children in real-time using GPS, GSM, and Wifi and to create “safe-zones” that notify the parent or guardian if a child leaves the area, among other things. There are apps that track every move a child makes on their smartphone, RFID bracelets, and secret video recorders embedded in iPhone docs. And, this is aside from the now ubiquitous compacts between parent and child that Facebook, Gmail, and any other communication channels’ passwords be handed over for parental perusing carte blanche.

Technological access to the lives of others--strangers and loved ones--is unprecedented. If we were to draw a pre-Internet analog, it would be as if each of us had a stenographer following us, recording our conversations, and then posting some or all of those conversations on a public community board. This is unnerving for most of us, as evidenced by the privacy and security issues we grapple with in almost all aspects of daily life. From Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings to the NSA Files, privacy concerns related to digital citizenship are at a zenith. Simultaneously, consumers are being bombarded by messaging from the government and the private sector that the world is a dangerous place, the Internet even more so. Therefore it’s imperative that we be monitored, and in turn monitor each other lest we fall victim to a shadowy figure in some deep unknown part of the web.

Facts vs. Feelings

Ironically, there is little evidence to suggest that heightened surveillance achieves significant increase in safety. Most notably is the ongoing revelations of NSA spying on the American and international publics. Of the multitude of records being dredged by the agency’s programs, only 13 plots were attributed to these efforts. Looking more locally, the ACLU also released a report on the effectiveness of video surveillance in metropolitan areas both in the UK and the United States. They found that video surveillance had little impact on crime. In the case of parental surveillance on children, one study suggests that more knowledge is actually obtained through a child’s voluntary self-disclosure.(Miller et al, 2005)

Moreover, psychological studies seem to suggest that parental monitoring of children can cause a number of developmental problems: lower self-esteem, antisocial behavior, indecisiveness, or anxiety, among others.

In one study, pre-school children were given a task to complete, and a reward at the end. Those children who were told they would be surveilled were significantly more likely to ignore, or show diminished interest in, the task when it was presented as a playtime option later on in their pre-school.

In studies(Shiffrin, 2014, Padilla-Walker et. al, 2012) on college-aged children of overprotective mothers, some researchers found that students reported higher levels of depression and anxiety as adults, as well as indecisiveness and lowered self-esteem. Indeed, the socially awkward, overly attached basement dweller has become a (cringe-inducing) stereotype of millennials.

Additionally, several studies indicate that dishonesty is in the eye of the beholder. In two separate cases, decades apart, researchers found that when a monitor was told a subject knew he was being monitored, the monitor viewed the subject as inherently more dishonest than a subject that did not know he was being surveilled. (Strickland, 1958; Miller et al, 2005) In these studies, participants were asked to rate the honesty of a child who knew he was being surveilled and a child who did not know he was being surveilled. In each study, the monitor said the child not being surveilled was more honest.

The Argument of Success

Of course, on the other side of the surveillance debate is the argument that there are times when surveillance uncovers a problem that would have gone otherwise undetected. For instance, a father of an autistic boy was told his son was acting out in school. The report was incongruent to the father, who knew his son had never been violent. So, he dropped an audio recorder into his son’s pocket one day before sending him to school, only to discover his teachers berating and belittling him.

The issues at play in the surveillance of children are neither straightforward nor easy. And the repercussions of choosing to surveil kids with the kinds of technology currently available to parents are unknown. Every parent wants to keep their child safe, but it seems imperative not to sacrifice their own safety or the relationship of parent and child in order to achieve peace of mind.


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Padilla-Walker, Laura M., and Larry J. Nelson. "Black Hawk Down?: Establishing Helicopter Parenting as a Distinct Construct from Other Forms of Parental Control during Emerging Adulthood." Journal Of Adolescence 35, no. 5 (October 1, 2012): 1177-1190. ERIC, EBSCOhost (accessed October 14, 2014).

Miller, Dale T., Penny S. Visser, and Brian D. Staub. 2005. "How Surveillance Begets Perceptions of Dishonesty: The Case of the Counterfactual Sinner." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89 (2): 117-128. doi:

Schiffrin, Holly,, et al. "Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students' Well-Being." Journal Of Child & Family Studies 23, no. 3 (April 2014): 548-557. Education Source, EBSCOhost (accessed October 14, 2014).

Strickland, Lloyd H. 1958. "Surveillance and Trust." Journal of Personality 26: 200-215. doi:

Vieno, Alessio, Maury Nation, Massimiliano Pastore, and Massimo Santinello. 2009. "Parenting and Antisocial Behavior: A Model of the Relationship between Adolescent Self-Disclosure, Parental Closeness, Parental Control, and Adolescent Antisocial Behavior." Developmental Psychology 45 (6): 1509-1519. doi:

Kerr, Margaret and Hå Stattin. 2000. "What Parents Know, how they Know it, and several Forms of Adolescent Adjustment: Further Support for a Reinterpretation of Monitoring." Developmental Psychology 36 (3): 366-380. doi: