02/26/2012 11:10 EST

Kids' Privacy And Parents: Should You Be E-Spying On Your Kids?


Where does electronic spying draw the line? With governments around the world enacting bills to allow for access to users' personal data, they're treading on the same prickly question that crops up for parents in terms of their kids. Just because parents are the authorities in a household setting, does that mean they should be able to see everything that's going on at all times?

Businesses, it seems, are eager to get in on that action. Last summer, Rogers launched "Smart Home Monitoring", a service that promoted its ease of viewing live video of the inside of their homes from anywhere in the world. (Their slogan: 'Always Connected. Always Close.') You can keep track of little Billy's comings and goings and after-school activities, plus anyone he happens to bring home with him.

But you don't even have to sign any contracts to see what the kiddies are up to -- there's a Gizmodo page with instructions on how to turn your old iPhones into surveillance cameras, and websites with info about utilizing surveillance apps for your Android phone.

Washington Post columnist Tracey Grant stirred the pot last year with her take on covert surveillance: "Why is spying on your kids a bad thing?... In the words of onetime liberal Ronald Reagan: Trust but verify." As she put it:

We know our parents did it, rifled the underwear drawer in search of a diary or a journal, looked under the mattress for a stash of cigarettes or worse. In a world in which 6-year-olds can play online games with faceless strangers, 10-year-olds have cellphones and 13-year-olds (and younger) have Facebook profiles, I posit that spying has never been a more important arrow in a parent’s quiver.

Grant was specifically talking about monitoring your kids' online activities, but the same arguments could be applied to setting up cameras to monitor their activities in your home. Concerned parents have been catching lazy or crazy babysitters on "nannycams" for years. Clearly, spying on our kids is well within our reach, but should parents be using surveillance, just because they can?

"Absolutely not," says Toronto-based relationship counsellor and motivational speaker Karyn Gordon, author of 'Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen Years.' :What I find is that parents usually go to these extremes because they're just so desperate. It's like, 'My kids aren't talking to me, so what do I have to do?'"

But when it comes to setting up surveillance to keep tabs, Gordon says that it would be a quick way to erode trust with your kids.

"To have a great relationship with your kids, you've got to have trust and honesty as a foundation, if you don't have that, then everything is shaky," she says.

But Calgary-based psychologist Cory Hruska works with kids who have serious behavioural problems, and he says there isn't a yes or no answer.

"It all depends on the process, I wouldn't say there's a black and white," he says. If you've seen troubling signs that your children are getting involved in dangerous or harmful behaviours behind your back, Hruska says it can be a useful tool.

"We recommend transparency, so telling them, 'We know something's not right, you keep denying it, so we are going to have to find out what's going on'" said Hruska. "Then you kick into the observation phase, and you can use security systems for that, because now you have informed consent."

Hruska warns though, if parents are using the technology simply to micromanage or control their child's behaviour ("Mackenzie, I noticed you ate a doughnut after school instead of a healthy snack"), parents can quickly lose their child's trust.

"It's like a tool. You can build with it or you can destroy with it," he said. "If it's someone you trust and there's no issues, then why do you need to see what they're doing?"