Parental dilemma:To spy or not to spy on your infants and teens

NEW YORK:In the 21st century,parenthood and paranoia often walk hand in hand. For some,the blessed event is followed by hi-tech surveillance,a monitoring system that tracks the baby’s breathing rhythms and relays infrared images from the nursery.

The next investment might be a nanny cam,to keep watch on the child’s hired caregivers. Toddlers and grade schoolers can be equipped with GPS devices enabling a parent to know their location should something go awry.

To cope with the uncertainties of the teen years,some parents acquire spyware to monitor their children’s online and cellphone activity. Others resort to home drug-testing kits.

Added together,there’s a diverse,multibillion-dollar industry seeking to capitalize on parents’ worst fears about their children,fears aggravated by occasional high-profile abductions and the dangers lurking in cyberspace. One mistake can put a child at risk or go viral online,quickly ruining a reputation.

“There’s a new set of challenges for parents,and all sorts of new tools that can help them do their job,” said David Walsh,a child psychologist in Minneapolis. “On the other hand,we have very powerful industries that create these products and want to sell as many as possible,so they try to convince parents they need them.”

Some parents need little convincing.

Mary Kozakiewicz of Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania,whose daughter,Alicia,was abducted as a 13-year-old in 2002 by a man she met online,is one such parent. Alicia was chained,beaten and raped before she was rescued four days after her abduction.

In recent years,both mother and daughter have campaigned to raise awareness of Internet-related dangers.

Kozakiewicz urges parents to monitor children’s computer and cell phone use,and says those who balk out of respect for privacy are being naive.

“It’s not about privacy – it’s about keeping them safe,” she said.

Elsewhere on the spectrum are parents like Lenore Skenazy,a mother of two teens in New York City who wrote a book called “Free Range Kids:How To Raise Safe,Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).”

Skenazy,who let one of her sons ride the New York subway alone when he was 9 years old,contends that many marketers exploit parents’ ingrained worries about their children’s safety.

“The idea is that the only good parent is a parent who is somehow watching over their child 24/7,” she said. “You feel nothing should take precedence over monitoring your child’s well-being every second of the day … from the time they’re born to when they go off to college.”

Psychologists who work with troubled adolescents and teens say parents regularly ask if they should be doing more surveillance.

“Ideally,parents establish good open communication and trust with their children,and they don’t need to do all these things,” said Neil Bernstein,a psychologist in Washington,D.C. “But if the child is doing something to create suspicion,you can’t expect parents to turn their back and not monitor.”

Bernstein,author of “How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to do if You Can’t,” says the best approach is a balanced one – neither overly zealous and paranoid nor uninvolved and neglectful.

A look at some of the monitoring tactics and products available to parents:

Baby monitors:These devices,some limited to audio monitoring,others also with video capability,have developed a reputation as a mixed blessing. They can provide parents with peace of mind,freeing them to be elsewhere in the house while the baby naps,but sometimes they accentuate anxiety.

“Some parents are reassured by hearing and seeing every whimper and movement. Others find such close surveillance to be nerve-racking,” says Consumer Reports,which has tested many of the monitors. The monitors operate within a selected radio frequency band to send sound from a baby’s room to a receiver in another room,a technology which can be vulnerable to interference from other electronic devices. Prices of models tested by Consumer Reports ranged from $30 for audio monitors to more than $200 for some with video.

Tracking devices:The devices range from clip-on alarms to GPS locators that can be put in a backpack or stuffed in a doll,but they have limited range and can raise safety concerns of their own.

Ernie Allen,president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,says the devices can be helpful in some circumstances but worries about overreliance on them.

“Some of them encourage parents,perhaps unwittingly,to forget their basic responsibilities,” he said. “There are parents who think they can depend on the technology,not on themselves.”

Some gadgets use GPS technology,relying on satellite signals,that allows parents using a Web browser to track the location of an enabled device such as a cell phone.

Spyware:For many parents,one of the toughest decisions is whether to spy on a child’s computer and cellphone activity. It is common for some children to send more than 100 text messages a day,and a recent Associated Press-MTV poll found that about one-quarter of teens had shared sexually explicit photos,videos and chat by cell phone or online.

Walsh,the Minneapolis psychologist,says the best initial step for parents concerned about online risks is a heart-to-heart talk with the child,with monitoring used as a contingency measure only if there is clear justification.

One of the challenges for some parents is a technology gap:their children may have more savvy about cyberspace and an ability to thwart various spyware tactics.

“Parents are trying to play catch up – and it’s a highly fragmented,confusing sector,” said Keith Jarrett of the AmberWatch Foundation,a nonprofit based in Seal Beach,California,dedicated to protecting children against abduction and “the dangers of the digital world.”

AmberWatch promotes various safety devices and technologies,including SafeText – a system enabling parents,for $5 a month,to monitor their children’s text-messaging. The system sends alerts when it detects potentially dangerous or inappropriate text messages,so the parents do not have to review vast numbers of messages themselves.

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