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Varda Epstein Headshot

Spying on Our Kids

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"White tornado," I used to hiss into the phone as a teenager, whenever my mother walked into the room.

This was a private code I'd worked out with friends to let them know I wasn't free to speak about sensitive matters. My self-invented code worked great until one day, my mother walked into the room and wryly announced, "White tornado."

I turned all sorts of interesting colors. "Did you think I wouldn't figure it out?" said my mother. "You say it every time I walk into the room."

I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed at having wrongly assumed I was smarter than my mother. I was embarrassed at being caught. I was embarrassed that my mother knew I kept secrets from her, things I thought she shouldn't know.

The truth is if I think about some of the crazier things I did as a teenager, I have to say that in the back of my mind, a lot of the time, I was hoping someone would figure out what I was doing and stop me. It would have come as a relief. Yet you'd never know that from listening to me having a "debate" with my mother, back in the day.

Those years are never far from my mind when I think about my own children and the dangers to which they are surely exposed, on a day-to-day basis. I imagine that like me, they want to be stopped when they do things that have the potential of harming them. But unlike me, they have all sorts of new venues for their wacko -- nay dangerous -- teenage behavior. They have the Internet and they have smart phones.

I thought about all this when I read this CNN item about the Glendale, California school district awarding a $40,500 contract to a firm called Geo Listening, to monitor the social media activity of students in this district. In other words, local officials paid detectives to spy on kids. Defending themselves against the not unexpected criticism, school officials claimed that as a result of their monitoring activities, they'd saved a life having actually stopped one student from committing suicide.

As adults still taking in the import of the AP and NSA scandals, it's easy to see why the actions of this suburban school district might smell not quite right, and yet, more than anything, we want to protect our children. And if today's kids are anything like I was as a teenager, I believe they want to be kept from harm, even self-inflicted harm.

More to the point: imagine if you could somehow go back in time and prevent the Columbine shooting by monitoring social media accounts. Would you do it?

Of course you would.

But spying on our kids implies distrust. We need to treat our children with respect because the way to get kids to act trustworthy is paradoxically, to offer them our trust. This is how we do it in our mentoring programs at Kars for Kids. We work together on identifying attainable goals and the means to get there, means that are within reach of our students. The rest is up to the students themselves.

I Trust You

I can't tell those parents in Glendale how to handle a situation in which school district officials have decided to spy on their children. But if it were me, I'd sit down with my teen and tell her, "I trust you. Some teens, however, do drugs or engage in other risky behaviors. That's why the school district has begun monitoring social media accounts."

By offering my child these two pieces of information -- that I trust her, and that her activity will now be monitored by the school district -- I would empower her to make appropriate life choices. She would know I'm counting on her to make me proud and she'd be glad to have the ball back in her court to prove herself -- both to me and to the school district.

In framing the situation just so, it becomes possible to remove any negative impress from the idea of spying and replace it with: I trust you. I care about you. And I'm watching to make sure nothing happens to you.

In short, by having this discussion a parent can offer a teen a feeling of safety in a wide open world that likely seems as scary to her as it did to me all those years ago. You'd be throwing your teen a lifeline and keeping her safe, at that.

So maybe we shouldn't be too quick to use the "s" word -- spying -- in relation to the monitoring activities of Glendale school district. Parents of students could see this whole monitoring thing as an opportunity to build mutual trust and respect into their relationships with their teenage children. It may just be that the Glendale school district is on to something after all.

Stay tuned.