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Spying on Your kids

The technology to spy on your kids is out there. But should you?
WebMD Feature

June 18, 2001 -- Parents today can use technological marvels to monitor their children -- devices no one even heard of just a few years ago. Nannycams. Programs that keep a list of every web site your child visits. Dime-sized devices attached to a backpack or watchband that tell you where your child is, all the time.

Promoters of these devices promise peace of mind to overstressed parents. But are these devices improving -- or damaging -- our relationships with our children?

Brian Cury has a front-row view of the phenomenon as CEO and founder of EarthCam Inc., a webcam sales company. He says webcams for personal use are the fastest-growing segment of the market, quadrupling in the past year.

"All you need is a dial-up connection, and you can log in from anywhere in the world to see how your child is doing," says Cury. "Daycare centers now promote this service to attract parents who want to share special moments in their child's life, even while they're at work."

Sometimes electronic monitoring can be very useful, says Alan Hilfer, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "I recall parents who felt unsure and suspicious about the woman caring for their infants. They used a babycam to monitor the situation and learned their child was left alone crying all day while the caretaker visited with her boyfriend in the next room."

Invasion of the Privacy Snatchers

Despite such stories, other parents have considered these devices and voted against them.

"I decided against even using one of those walkie-talkie style baby monitors," says Mary Mazzocco, the mother of a 3-year-old and a journalism instructor at Solano Community College in Suisun, Calif.

"It seems to me they just make parents who use them more anxious and smothering," she says. "Things like global positioning systems or programs that list web sites your child has visited -- they strike me as creepy. I would have seriously considered running away from home if my parents had used that stuff on me. When you have a teenager who hasn't been in trouble and you use methods like that, you're just asking them to get in trouble."

"I think electronic spying, if used at all, should be limited to kids who are on 'probation' because of serious offenses against parental trust," says Betsy Schwartz, of Arlington, Mass., the mother of a 4-year-old. "A curfew and a cell phone should do it for most kids."

Sorting out appropriate and inappropriate uses of technological aids means tracing a fuzzy line, Hilfer says. "When are you doing something useful and helpful for your child's well-being? When are you indulging your own suspicious or intrusive nature?"

A Matter of Trust

If a day care center integrates a webcam into their work with parents, that probably feels good to everyone, says Jonathan Brush, PhD, a child psychologist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. "Children may feel pleased that their parents can see them while they're at work."

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