Technology and Trust: How Families Can Balance Supervision and Personal Responsibility

As heart-rendingly difficult as it can be to respect your child's legitimate and age-appropriate personal freedom, the concept behind it isn't rocket science.

By Michelle Martin
Published June 16, 2009

One of the challenges of parenthood is the struggle to raise our children to be trustworthy, and to allow them the opportunity to prove themselves to be so. I worry that the internet age has affected the capacity of parents to do this - because of the ways that technology has raised the wages of sin, yes, but also because technology enables surveillance.

Don't misunderstand me, here - obviously one's home computer has to be monitored when naturally curious children and teenagers are surfing, and our home is no different than many others in that anything with the potential for harm is not allowed on our monitor.

Yet the internet has become a necessary tool for everything from completing projects to enrolling in courses. To this end, our password-protected family computer is in the kitchen, and only once they are finished high school and attending a post-secondary institution are the members of our household allowed a laptop with wireless access (through our router).

Filtering software is not 100 percent reliable, and any bright, curious kid (aren't they all?) can find a way to circumvent it.

Unfortunately, this means that their IM conversations and Facebook updating (for the high schoolers) take place with other people around. It has to be this way because the stakes are so high for minor children (lots of those in our house) where the internet is concerned.

I don't make a point of reading over their shoulders, and neither do their siblings. But any video screen in a room is a powerful magnet for the eyes, and if you're chatting with your friends on the kitchen computer here, chances are someone will be reading over your shoulder from time to time (happens to me when I'm online, too).

The upside of this is that it will encourage, I hope (and suggest to them), more face time with their chums. They need to engage in conversation both serious and frivolous with good friends - from inside jokes to school concerns to confidences - and these things are not by their nature my business.

My role here is to raise our kids to feel that they can come to us for advice if something worrying comes up in one of those conversations, and to remind them to approach their father and me first for any serious matter.

As heart-rendingly difficult as it can be to respect your child's legitimate and age-appropriate personal freedom, the concept behind it isn't rocket science. It's a matter of giving them your trust as they merit it, in increasing measure with their age.

It's also a matter of making it clear when your concern is a lack of trust in the general crowd, not in your son or daughter in particular. "So, no. No out-of-town graduation after-party for you. You'll thank me the morning after when you hear all the awful stories."

And, I would argue, it involves not being contradictory. Case in point: are cell phones a necessity for younger teenagers? There are ways for parents to spy on cell phone use. But why give them use of a cell if you have real concerns about them using it foolishly?

Either you trust them to use a cell phone or you don't. And how healthy is it for parents to have access to all the conversations of their kids? In fact, doesn't it make sense that respecting their legitimate privacy helps teach them to respect it themselves?

At the very least, why not hold off on the cell phones until they can buy their own, sign their own contract and pay the bills themselves? Let them learn to treat their private conversations responsibly by talking to their friends in person, where their mistakes and missteps won't be forwarded almost instantly. Why not allow opportunities for demonstrating your trust in them to unfold the old-fashioned way?

If Mary in Grade 10 says she's going to Susy's to work on homework, won't a simple phone call home when she arrives (or from there to let you know that's where she went after school) suffice for safety's sake? Or do you have to track her every move?

Of course this is risky and messy when put into practice. Kids, being human, will disappoint their parents from time to time in ways large and small - didn't we all? But a wise mother I know once told me that it's better for a child's soul in the long run (admittedly sometimes the very long run) to trust them if you have no reason not to. It's much better than drawing battle lines:

"You better not try anything, mister, 'cause I'm tracking you and your text messages."

"You think I'm gonna be up to no good? Fine, then I will be!"

Kids need to feel free to do what they told you they would do. If they freely choose in any instance to betray your trust, they will recognize that they have done just that.

This will bother them more than disabling a GPS tracker or turning off their cell - they haven't betrayed any trust if none was demonstrated to begin with. But if they are sensible of having betrayed your trust they will feel badly about it. And the hope exists that they will try to better in the future whether you've found out or (and this is the hard part) not.

It's much better for their personal dignity - and for ours, too.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted June 16, 2009 at 16:36:20

Growing up, I never had a curfew. I was simply told "We trust you, unless you give us a reason not to. So make sure you communicate, and don't break that trust."

I think that did wonders for me - in that it demonstrated trust, but also clearly laid out my responsibility.

Some friends of mine, a married couple in their twenties, took a 16-year-old into their home when his parents kicked him out. Every last house rule is posted on their fridge, and only they have the password for the Internet on the single house computer, becuase otherwise, there's going to be issues.

It's a slight tangent from the article, but I'd like to explore some of these same concepts when I (eventually...) get to do my thesis - reading things like Robert Epstein's Case Against Adolescence and Myth of the Teen Brain. Philip Graham's End of Adolescence was thought-provoking, if going a bit too far in his application ideas. But they also look at cultures throughout history and how adolescence as a whole didn't exist so much as an introductory adulthood, with responsibilities, support, and high expectations.... and how low expectations and disempowerment create many problems we have now (and a crop of twentysomethings who think adulthood, jobs, finances and marriage are not goals until they hit their thirties).

I know its pretty well known that adolescence primarily (not completely) began in the 20th-century and took off post-WWII... some of the thoughts about "youth" in the previos centuries (e.g. astrology and Venus governing the age of youth, medieval morality plays about sinful youth, etc. reinforced this and sneakily influenced our current views).

But in the face of culture changing, technology changing, education changing.... nothing is ever as influential as one's family, for good or for ill.

If one's family has demonstrated confidence, instilled responsibility and high expectations, and given their kids critical thinking skills... some may still make bad choices but there's a huge head start they've been given in their eventual move to adulthood.

I had someone sitting on my couch the other day while I was doing dreadlocoks in her son's hair... I had never met her before, and she was lamenting about her out-of-control daughter. Meanwhile she had brought StepBrothers and Notorious (both the unrated versions of the R-rated films) for their 13-year-old to watch. Not in itself the end of the universe, but another symptom of bigger issues at hand.

Again, not rocket science, but another area where it's too easy to unwittingly reflect cultural expectations, often because one has never heard another perspective, or not learned it oneself.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 07, 2010 at 13:20:56

A voice of reasoned reason, neither technophobic nor devoted to unnecessary technical solutions to human problems. A pleasure to read.

-- Kenneth Moyle

[Comment edited by moylek on 2010-01-07 12:21:24]

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