The Secret Lives Of Teens

Daniel Sieberg is science and technology correspondent for CBS News.
Is it high-tech parenting or old-fashioned prying? For any parent concerned about what their kids are doing in the digital domain, dozens of software programs can log every keystroke, keep track of every Web page, read every e-mail, instant message, etc. Users can even set keyword "alerts," so if a child types or reads something they deem inappropriate an e-mail is sent to the person who installed the software. Sound scary? Orwellian? Handy? If you're under 18 years old then your parents may be reading this blog right now (although I doubt many of you are).

For tonight's Evening News with Katie Couric we talked to a family in the Midwest. They actually asked to be anonymous for fear of tipping their hand to their 15-year-old daughter, who is unaware her parents are spying on her. They say they have good reason to peer into her secret online world since she recently fell into the wrong crowd. They've seen evidence of drinking, drugs, sexual behavior and other activity that has them worried. The parents say they tried discussing everything with their daughter in person, but she shut them out. So, they turned to technology.

I know what the skeptics are saying: how is this any different than when kids used to grow up? Shouldn't kids be left to make occasional mistakes on their own? What about more chatting first? Certainly valid points, and clearly it all comes down to a personal choice for parents. The software is readily available online or in computer stores, and here's a list from CNET reviewing a handful of them. (Full disclosure: We interviewed CNET's technology expert Brian Cooley for our story airing tomorrow night.)

They all do roughly the same things, but keeping on top of the steady stream of covert information can turn into a full-time job. It can be rather tedious to parse all the data, and do you really want to see everything your child is up to? (gonna hang @ mall tonite with GG -- call me l8er, k?) Of course, there are those incidents when parents wish they'd paid more attention to what their child was up to online, like the tragic case of the 13-year-old girl in Missouri who killed herself after someone pretended to like her via her MySpace page and then rejected her.

Like so many tools for parents, experts say it's just that, a tool. Never a substitute for improving communication or face-to-face interaction. And most kids use the Internet in a positive and safe manner. But for some parents who don't know where else to turn, these programs can provide a (frightening) window into their child's Web world. Perhaps it becomes far too overbearing when it goes from tracking or monitoring to surveillance or stalking. And if your child ever finds out, then obviously there would be serious trust issues in the future. In all honesty, I don't have kids (yet), and I don't know what I would do. Oh, and as for using this type of software on a spouse, partner or friend? Keep in mind it's often considered illegal unless the subject of the spying knows about its existence on the computer. But that's a whole other story.