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The Internet, children, and privacy: the case against parental monitoring

Monitoring your children’s Web browsing is important. You may not be able to monitor their surfing in real time. But it’s good to know exactly where they’ve been. So, what’s the easiest way to check what sites they’ve visited? Your Web browsers hold the information you need. Every browser records a surfing history. You can see every page your children have visited.

“Computer Guru” Kim Kommando

Abstract

It has been recommended that parents should monitor their children’s Internet use, including what sites their children visit, what messages they receive, and what they post. In this paper, I claim that parents ought not to follow this advice, because to do so would violate children’s right to privacy over their on-line information exchanges. In defense of this claim, I argue that children have a right to privacy from their parents, because such a right respects their current capacities and fosters their future capacities for autonomy and relationships.

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Notes

  1. Quotes are from, in order, Directgov [the UK government's digital service for people in England and Wales], “Keeping Children Safe On-line,” http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/parents/yourchildshealthandsafety/internetsafety/dg_071138, accessed June 2, 2012; Common Sense Media, “Tech tip: Checking Browser Histories,” http://www.commonsensemedia.org/advice-for-parents/tech-tip-checking-browser-histories, accessed July 23, 2012; Federal Bureau of Investigation, Cyber Division, “A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety,” http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/parent-guide/, accessed June 2, 2012; Minor Monitor, http://www.freewaregenius.com/2011/12/11/monitor-your-childs-facebook-activity-with-minor-monitor/, accessed February 8, 2013. See also, Children’s Rights Council, “Check your Child’s Web History,” http://www.crckids.org/parents/parenting-tools/online-activity/how-to-check-your-childs-internet-history/, accessed July 10, 2012.

  2. Numerous websites offer advice on how to do this, see e.g., http://www.wikihow.com/Surf-the-Internet-on-a-Macintosh-Without-Your-Parents-Knowing, accessed 8 February 2013.

  3. While early work on children and the Internet indicated that minors do not value privacy on-line, recent studies have shown this to not be true (see e.g., Lenhart et al. 2011, 7; Davis and James 2013).

  4. While I focus on parents, the child’s right to privacy would also obligate others in parental roles (e.g., counselors, teachers) to respect minors’ privacy in their informational exchanges.

  5. Admittedly there is a debate among scholars over whether “rights” is an appropriate concept to use when discussing the basis of moral obligations toward children (see e.g., O'Neill 1988, Schoeman 1980, 1983; Wolgast 1987). It is not necessary to enter into the general debates about children’s rights here. If one objects to the idea of children’s rights, one can take my arguments as intended to establish a parent’s (non-rights based) obligation to respect the privacy of their minor child.

  6. This is not to say that this obligation cannot be outweighed by other more serious obligations. I discuss the concept of such “pro tanto” obligations below.

  7. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pushing me to clarify my position on this point.

  8. The justification of a paternalistic action is the good of the individual who is being protected. Thus, actions motivated primarily by a concern with the welfare of other people (including oneself) or by a concern with some independent moral requirement are not paternalistic, properly speaking. I will assume that in the case of monitoring parents are motivated by what they believe are the best interests of the child.

  9. Indeed, those who reject paternalistic laws, such as mandatory helmets for motorcyclists, may, at the same time, endorse such laws for minors (Jones and Bayer 2007).

  10. There is insufficient room for a full discussion of all these possible threats here; for an in-depth discussion, see Livingstone (2009).

  11. Some studies have found “strong evidence for exposure to pro-anorexia websites having negative effects on young women” (Bardone-Cone and Cass 2007, 544). While a number of social media organizations have banned such sites, they persist (Casilli et al. 2012). An informal Google search for “pro ana [pro anorexia] tips” yields approximately 516,000 results and “pro mia [pro bulimia] tips” yields approximately 85,600 results. The first 3 pages of these results were all links to sites that advocate bulimia. (This search was conducted by the author on 3 July 2012).

  12. A “technopanic” (coined by Marwick 2008) is a form of “media panic” (Drotner 1999), which itself is a subclass of “moral panic” (Cohen 1972). A moral panic occurs when there is a perceived threat to the present moral order by some group (or, in this case, technology).

  13. Students in my information ethics courses often make this argument.

  14. Further support for this claim may be taken from the fact that large amounts of time and money have been dedicated to collecting, storing, and using data about people’s Internet searches to provide “personalized” service to customers (Mobasher et al. 2000). If such data provided no information about a person’s beliefs or intentions, then such data collection would be pointless. I am grateful to Tony Doyle for emphasizing this point.

  15. Students in my information ethics courses also often make this argument.

  16. In the case of citizens and the state, there are laws protecting citizens’ privacy from state intrusions. Given the unique features of the family context, similar laws protecting the child’s privacy from parental intrusion would likely do more harm than good.

  17. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pushing me to respond more fully to this concern about autonomy.

  18. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for suggesting the importance of trust in this context.

  19. See e.g., Common Sense Media’s “10 simple steps to Internet Safety” http://www.commonsensemedia.org/advice-for-parents/10-simple-steps-internet-safety; EU Kids Online’s “How can parents support internet safety,” http://www2.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/EUKidsOnline/EU%20Kids%20III/Reports/ParentalMediation.pdf.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the participants at the 2012 Information Ethics Roundtable for helpful comments on an early version of the argument in this paper and Samantha Brennan, Tony Doyle, Don Fallis, Laura Lenhart, and Daniel Zelinski for written comments on various drafts. I would also like to thank two anonymous referees for extensive and very insightful comments, which helped me to improve the paper greatly.

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Correspondence to Kay Mathiesen.

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Mathiesen, K. The Internet, children, and privacy: the case against parental monitoring. Ethics Inf Technol 15, 263–274 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-013-9323-4

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Keywords

  • Privacy
  • Internet
  • Parental monitoring
  • Children’s rights
  • Risks on-line
  • The Internet and children