Law in the Internet Society

Mother is Always Watching: Psychological, Sociological, and Privacy Concerns of Surveillance Helicoptering

Even before I enter the apartment where I’m babysitting the family watches. They’re out but see me on the “Ring” and text, “glad the nanny let you in.” Suddenly they appear on their video Alexa without warning or me answering to explain bedtime procedures for their 3-year-old. At bedtime she wants to listen to “Uncle Moishe.” Instantaneously her parents press play on their phones. While at a concert 60 blocks south they watch and listen to their daughter and me.

Some techno-parenting surveillance feels like natural tendencies (phones have trackers and why not make sure your trust is well-founded), some feel like logical outgrowths of the past (baby monitors linked to phones), others feel almost science-fictiony (a device that reports whenever the teen’s car exceeds the speed limit). For concerned parents today’s gadgets allow for revolutionary helicoptering. Parents are told they must use a slew of spy devices to protect their kids, but to what result? This paper argues this surveillance harms child development, hurts the family, and exposes children’s data.


Helicopter parenting took flight simultaneously with the rise of commercial internet providers. The early correlation is likely simply correlation (many trace helicoptering to the 1980s-news coverage of abductions), but overbearing parenting and technology have interacted surveilling children for over a decade. While child trackers existed 10 years ago, today they are built-in the phones teens can’t go anywhere without. T-Mobile has subscriptions to track family members that have over 100,000 subscribers paying $9.99/month. iPhones have this feature for free, decreasing the buy-in cost, and making not tracking more of an opt-out than opt-in. Helicoptering is pervasive and dangerous. 

Researchers of parent surveillance technology have concluded that surveillance devices such as baby monitors and internet trackers decrease autonomy and stunt development, the same risks seen in helicoptering generally. Helicopter parenting is linked to prolonged adolescence, anxiety, dependence, and other poor outcomes. Children with helicopter parents become terrified of making mistakes. It is easy to see how that anxiety would arise with items like the Alltrack USA’s speed detector that sends alerts to parents every time the teen exceeds the speed limit: a mile an hour over and your parents are on your case. The same goes for baby monitors, particularly when used with older children. Any small mistake or childhood mischief is seen (and ideally to many parents, stopped before it occurs). This undermines independence because an adult is always right there. Parents can hear children’s requests from miles away, they can intervene in arguments, and children don’t learn to cope. Children are stunted because the normal experimentations of childhood and adolescence are unavailable.


Surveillance within the family can also harm the family structure, destroying trust and promoting secrecy. Teens who know their parents are tracking their phones will leave their phones at an approved place if they are going somewhere illicit. Trust is undermined when parents confront children about things they discover through spying. Studies show surveillance signals a lack of trust of the surveilled and in turn, the surveilled see those surveilling as untrustworthy.

When parents replace trust with surveillance, parent-child communication is undermined. Children feel constantly persecuted by parents who see their every (mis)step. Further, parents are not encouraged to build open lines of communication with children to gather information because they can get this information through spying. Children feel constantly watched and are discouraged from sharing any more of their lives with nosy parents.


Even parents who believe they don’t helicopter should be concerned about the privacy risks. Parents are exposing their children’s every move on baby monitors to peeping Toms, governments, and companies. There is potential harm in installing a device that tracks speed limits if it is hacked by insurance companies, or highway patrol. Further, commodification of where teens go at all times helps companies with ideas like perfect price discrimination.

As a case study, this paper discusses the ease of hacking baby monitors. Accessing someone’s unsecured monitor isn’t difficult. Bots randomly scan for unsecured devices, which can be done across the entire internet in mere hours. In 2015, security firm Rapid tested nine popular baby monitors for security. Eight of the nine got an F, the ninth a D minus. Nothing has changed.

Mothers have caught hackers hijacking camerasOne mother noticed her baby monitor scanning the room and landing on her bed without anyone controlling it. Others reported their baby monitors talking. If peeping Toms on the internet are watching through baby monitors, what comes next? Surely those who lived in Stalin’s Soviet Union would find bringing a camera into your home that anyone can access foolish. This can allow for more targeted advertising, election campaigning, perfect price discrimination. Children’s personal data is commodified.


Child monitoring devices should concern all parents. An often-extreme form of helicoptering, it stunts child development leading to anxiety, decreased autonomy, and potentially other adverse outcomes. Spying harms family communication and trust and leaves children open to observation by strangers. Yet parents still use them. Can law do anything? Probably little can be done through law for the interpersonal, psychological, and sociological issues of spying within a family. Children are entitled to limited privacy under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the U.S. hasn’t ratified it. Regardless, UNCRC grants only an iota of privacy that doesn’t cover parental snooping. The passage of a law abridging the parent’s “right” to invade their children’s privacy is nearly unimaginable.

In terms of peeping Toms or companies/governments, the law can punish peeping on baby monitors and the like as well as further outlawing the use of children’s data from phone tracking, baby monitors, etc. For some spy devices, regulation of IoT devices would help. The government could regulate those with cameras more than other IoT? devices like refrigerators. The ability to sue companies for leaking might help as well. However, the biggest change will likely have to come from parents deciding not to use the devices for one or all the concerns discussed above. Groups can try to educate families on the dangers.

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r6 - 21 Jan 2020 - 18:31:41 - AyeletBentley
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