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(Steven Hughes For The Globe and Mail)
(Steven Hughes For The Globe and Mail)

When does protecting your child become invasion of privacy? Add to ...

In the most recent episode of Modern Family, the hapless Phil and Claire Dunphy snoop on their children with a camera-equipped toy chopper. The literal send-up of “helicopter parenting” is played for laughs – after all, the parent-child struggle over privacy is as timeless as “Keep out!” signs on bedroom doors.

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But there’s a darker subtext to the show. At a time when there is outrage over government and corporate monitoring of our phone and Internet activities, as well as concerns about the omnipresence of security cameras recording our every move, there’s also a growing market for technology that helps parents monitor their kids.

Rogers, for example, has been pushing its home-monitoring video capabilities in a TV commercial that features a real Canadian mom. In the ad, Kelly Williamson is on vacation in Aruba when an alert on her smartphone tells her smoke has been detected back at her home in Newmarket, Ont. A quick check of her monitoring system’s live camera feed reveals not a kitchen in flames, but a pair of home-alone teenagers who have forgotten to flip their flapjacks.

“I know from the camera who it was,” Ms. Williamson says in the ad while her guilty 17-year-old son Ryan smiles sheepishly.

The price of that knowledge, though, is youth privacy. Surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden said in a message delivered on Christmas Eve from Russia that “a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.”

This pervasive surveillance of children also worries child psychologists, media experts and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. They say a lack of privacy in children’ s lives can undermine trust, promote secrecy and hinder their ability to assess risk and develop independence. As well, young people who grow up in an environment where their privacy isn’t respected may not learn to understand or value it.

“Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be,” Mr. Snowdon says. And these days kids can’t even get it in their own homes.

Technological advancements over the last decade have provided parents with tools that were formerly available only to law enforcement and government: software that monitors online and mobile communication; GPS tracking devices that can be strapped to backpacks and wrists; even palm scanners in cafeterias to monitor caloric intake. Security cameras have been commonplace in schools, malls and other public places for decades, leaving the family home as the last bastion of youth privacy.

But for how much longer? The use of in-home cameras is widespread and growing. Ian Pattinson, vice-president of Rogers Smart Home Monitoring, wouldn’t disclose how many homes have installed the service since it launched in 2011, or how many of those include cameras. But he says that Rogers and its U.S. home-security partners, which include cable giants Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Inc., aim to install their products in 40 per cent of North American households, and that cameras are a “very, very popular feature.”

Sitting in his Newmarket home, Ryan Williamson laughs when recalling how friends kept asking, “Been making pancakes lately?” and “Do you have trust issues with your mom?” when he first appeared alongside his mother in that television ad for Rogers’ home-monitoring service.

His mother, though, takes it more seriously. Ms. Williamson, 46, gestures toward the sardine-can-sized camera sitting unobtrusively atop a bank of kitchen cabinets. “I don’t think cameras are a great parenting tool, but if it allows you to trust them and feel a little more comfortable, then sure. I think initially they thought it was a little bit creepy, but the reality is I don’t think it has changed their behaviour.

“Nobody likes their privacy invaded, but everyone likes to be protected.”

The ironies of this outlook aren’t lost on Danah Boyd. The professor in media, culture and communication at New York University spent seven years talking with teenagers across the United States while working on her forthcoming book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, and was repeatedly told that the home is no longer a private place for young people.

“Many of today’s teenagers can’t go anywhere without being monitored by adults,” she says, adding that incessant surveillance has become “the new norm” for young people in Western society.

They are being watched “because the parenting narrative demands surveillance,” Ms. Boyd says. “It’s become a crutch for feeling that we’re doing the right thing, a crutch for feeling that we’ve done everything we can possibly do to make sure our child is safe.”

But this crutch is harming the very relationships parents are trying to protect. When parents install cameras, “it controls kids through a fear of stepping out of bounds, and it creates the environment where it’s impossible to have meaningful lines of communication,” Ms. Boyd says.

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