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March 7, 2009

Line blurry on privacy, safety of kids

Parents today have more ways than ever to keep tabs on their children.

With the right gadgets, it only takes a few clicks for tech-savvy parents to find out exactly where their teen driver is, how fast he is driving and whether he's wearing a seat belt. Parents have the technology to monitor where their children go on the Internet, who they e-mail, text and talk to; and even whether they bought ice cream or chips with their school lunch.

Every parent wants to keep his or her child safe, and these new tools have the potential to help. But they also pose new challenges for parents struggling to negotiate the already fine line between setting limits and giving kids enough freedom to grow.

My kids are only 11 and 5, and already, these issues are starting to surface. I recently signed up to monitor my kindergartner's lunch account online after she struggled with "remembering" she could only get ice cream on Fridays; cybersafety was the featured topic at our sixth-grade parent night last fall.

The line between safety and privacy is becoming increasingly blurry. When are we truly looking out for our children's best interests, and when are we invading their privacy? How much invasion is justified in the name of protection?

Statistics about teen driving fatalities make a compelling case for GPS tracking devices, "black box" event data recorders and miniature cameras in cars. With car crashes the leading cause of death among teens, parents are right to want to use any means necessary to keep their kids safe. We know teen drivers are inexperienced, more likely to be distracted and more prone to risk-taking. We also know they're more likely to be better drivers with Mom or Dad inside the car.

In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, unaccompanied 16- and 17-year-olds crash nine times more often than adults, and they're less likely to wear seat belts when their parents aren't in the car. Highway safety experts say these devices can not only serve as a deterrent to high-risk driving but also help teach teens to be better drivers.

Internet safety is a more-complex issue. Tragic stories about sexual predators and cyberbullies have led to increased public awareness about online safety. Educators and safety experts encourage parents to track where their children go on the Internet and to know their user names and passwords for e-mail accounts and social networking sites.

This is where the area gets a little grayer for me. Where, exactly, do we draw the line? Isn't reading a teen's e-mails and texts as much of a violation of privacy as opening a personal letter or eavesdropping on a phone call? Is a paper diary with a lock and key the only sacred private space these days?

When making decisions about whether and how to monitor our children's activities, we also have the impossible task of separating the marketing that plays on our emotions, with scary statistics, tugs on our guilt strings and too-good-to-be-true promises.

Consider this pitch from New York City-based BrickHouse Security, maker of devices such as the Cell Phone Spy Elite, which allows parents to recover deleted text messages and data from a teen's phone: "Your children and teenagers are subject to dangers every single day. As a parent or guardian, it is your job to protect them from those dangers. From online predators, to hanging out with the wrong crowd in places they shouldn't be in the first place, our teen protection and child safety measures will ensure complete protection and prevention for them every day."

We all want to keep our children safe, but part of the leap of faith that comes with parenting is the knowledge that we can't completely protect our children from every hazard, every day. We can't make all their decisions for them, even when we're sure we know what's best for them. We can't choose their friends or mold their personalities or prevent them from ever making a mistake.

That's not to say we shouldn't try to protect our kids, but spying on them seems like a counterproductive way to foster trust and communication. Ultimately, every family will need to find its own balance between security and freedom; trust and protection.

As for me, well, I'm glad I don't have any cell phone-toting teen drivers in my family _ yet.

I do, however, have a 5-year-old who is trying to stop sucking her thumb. I wonder if anyone has invented a monitoring device for that?


Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at