Archive for Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tracking devices, ‘spyware’ easy to abuse

September 26, 2006


Dr. Wes: Last year, Marissa and I did a column on new methods of surveillance that integrate into anything - especially cars and cell phones - allowing parents to know everything from where their kids are to how fast they are driving. This equipment is now being mass-marketed, joining a growing number of high-tech solutions for 21st-century supervision, including:

¢ Spyware to track everything teens do while online and filters to (supposedly) keep them from doing it.

¢ E-mail, text message and cell phone reviews.

¢ MySpace/Facebook hacking and site review.

¢ Home security systems installed as much to keep teens in as to keep intruders out.

¢ Camera phones, allowing parents to verify whether their teens are actually where they say they are.

¢ The ubiquitous Breathalyzer.

¢ Home and lab drug testing.

Whether you consider any of these a blessing or a curse depends squarely upon how you view teen culture and parental responsibility. Either way, the above methods are here to stay, and the highest-tech devices only will become cheaper and easier to use. As always, our ethical use of technology is lagging far behind. We'll scratch the surface of that issue in today's column and revisit it occasionally in the coming months. Actually, we'd like to encourage debate in this column on the wisdom and ethics of such methods from parents and teens via our confidential e-mail address. We'll publish and argue reasoned and respectful selections in an upcoming column.

When considering this issue, keep in mind the core tension being played out here: the right of young people to exercise reasonable freedom versus the right of parents to exercise reasonable oversight. In this, there is nothing new. These methods only extend long-honed snooping practices (reading a teen's diary, going through his room, receiving a friendly tip from the neighbors, forming a parent network, etc.). So the real ethical issue isn't as much in the method, as where the balance should be struck. Parents always have had to decide how much to restrain their children's overdeveloped yearning for freedom and underdeveloped skills at independence. In fact, that's pretty much the point of parenting between ages 13 and 18. That's why there are so many billboards encouraging parents to ask and know where their kids are and what they're up to in 2006 America. Any movement toward either extreme control or naÃive trust risks prevention of the child learning from natural consequence or, conversely, getting into serious and irreversible trouble.

We also have to consider these dramatic new solutions against a backdrop of equally dramatic change between 2006 and what we as parents grew up with. There actually has been a tremendous increase in teen self-determination and personal freedom since the 1960s. Whether they are considered good or bad, these methods are marketable because they attempt to address those changes and the genuine parental concern about the limits of teen freedom. However, I suggest parents consider all of these issues BEFORE they get involved in tracking or surveying their teen because, after that line has been crossed, it's far too late.

In a future column, I'll suggest more specific guidelines to consider before you tune in (literally) to your kids.

In the meantime, warm up your word processors and give us your comments, as John has done below. This may well be the most important teen/parent issue of our generation, and now would be a good time to begin discussing it.

John: Oh, the wonders of this day and age! While the ability to constantly know a child's location may sound pleasing to some parents, others wonder if GPS has gone too far.

In the security versus liberty debate, I'm Big Brother's big brother. While some might complain about the threat to privacy posed by geo-positioning, I see traveling outside the house as a privilege, not a right. As such, parents are licensed to place restrictions on it. In order to travel in the first place, parents must trust their offspring to obey house rules and travel safely. I assume that if parents were using GPS to monitor their teen, it would be because they were concerned their child would travel to an unauthorized zone. But if a teen needs GPS to keep him in line, it's hard to justify letting him travel in the first place.

At a few hundred bucks, this technology does not come cheap. And like any technology, teenagers will be able to manipulate it. Remember who helped you install the parental controls on the family computer? I am confident that my generation will discover a straightforward method to render this technology useless.

GPS tracking might be useful if used purely as a safety instrument and not as a means to enforce rules. For example, if a teen were going on a camping trip, GPS tracking could help the parents find their child if he got lost. But even here there are more practical tools - cell phones, for example - that could serve the same purpose.

One purpose of parents is to teach kids that rights are in small supply and that all privileges come with serious responsibility. To this end, geo-positioning is counter-productive because it allows teens to have a privilege (traveling) without fulfilling its responsibility (proving they will follow the rules). When college comes around, geo-positioning will be impossible, and new adults will have nothing but their consciences to keep them in line. Parents looking to protect their children should give this gadget a pass and look to more traditional methods of monitoring.

Next week: Readers request more information on suicide among teens. We'll offer some warning signs, risk factors and online links for teenagers.

Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to All correspondence is strictly confidential.

- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior.


gphawk89 11 years, 7 months ago

Most new cellphones sold in the last couple of years already have GPS built in for E911 purposes. As long as the phones are turned on, their position can be tracked (even without 911 being called). It's not a function that the general public has access to, but it can be done.

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