When Should Parents Snoop on Their Teens?

The Question

Our primary job as parents is to keep our children safe. Are we permitted to “snoop” on them in order to protect them from harm? Should we read their diaries, listen to their phone conversations, check their email log, and supervise their internet activity?

The Court Case

Before you answer the question, be aware of your legal rights. The State Supreme Court of Washington, as described in the Seattle Times, unanimously reversed a 2000 robbery conviction in a case that was based in part on the testimony of a mother and what she heard in a telephone conversation between her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend.

The mother, Carmen Dixon, reportedly heard the boyfriend discuss the robbery and even took notes of the conversation as she listened to it. By reversing the conviction, the Supreme Court is saying that it’s a crime to eavesdrop on anybody’s private conversation, including that of children. Although the attorneys cited provisions in the federal wiretap law that allow parents to listen to their children’s conversations, in Washington State there is “no such parental exception and no Washington court has ever implied such an exception,” according to the court opinion.

Will we get into trouble for performing our parental duty? Are there limits to our parental prerogative?

The Debate

My son doesn’t talk to me. If I ask him about school he says “It’s fine,” even though I don’t see him doing any work and his teachers report that he’s not handing in his assignments. He spends almost all of his time in his room, on the computer or on the phone. He doesn’t respond if I ask him about his friends or where they’re going. I’m happy that he still comes home at night.

Parents are in agony when left in the dark about a child’s activities. Who knows what he is doing! Is he involved with the “wrong” type of peer group? Is he hurting himself by engaging in behavior that is dangerous, either physically or emotionally, or illegal? What is a parent to do?

On the one hand, maybe we should just control our anxious thoughts and feelings. After all, we parents recognize our teenagers’ desire for privacy. They need time to be alone, space for their possessions, and the knowledge that we won’t pry into their lives. We want to have a relationship of trust and respect with them. We also want them to become increasingly independent so that they may be prepared for adulthood. If we control their lives too much we might impair their decision-making ability and hinder them from attaining the self-confidence to make the important decisions that lie ahead.

On the other hand, are we being naive and foolish if we don’t snoop on our children?

To determine what to do, let’s examine what we mean by snooping. To snoop, according to the dictionary, is “to pry into other people’s business or affairs, especially in a furtive way” (Encarta). Thus you are snooping when you monitor your children’s activities without their knowledge or expectations. That secretive activity implies that you don’t trust your child.

When There is Trouble

Are you indeed worried about your child? Do you have cause for concern or just intuit that something is not right? Then, most experts agree, go right ahead and snoop. Search your child’s room for any clue that indicates that the child is leading a secret life. You are doing so out of fear for their safety, not because you are a nosy, controlling parent.

If upon investigation you do find something inappropriate, confront your child directly about it. But plan your conversation carefully. Make sure that you control your emotions and convey your worry not your anger. Have an agenda in mind of what you want to say. State (1) why you were concerned; (2) what you found; and (3) what you will do about it.

Above all, show that you care and that you want to protect your child. Emphasize that a child’s freedom from intrusion is a privilege, not a right. As long as everything seems okay – which you will ascertain by continued monitoring of his or her behavior – then you will not need to investigate further. On the other hand, if you feel concerned, you will do whatever is necessary to find out what is going on.

What are the possible causes for concern? They include any change in a child’s behavior, school grades, hygiene, friends or sleeping and eating habits. We’re not talking about a typical teenager’s late hours. But late hours combined with irritability, withdrawal and poor performance may indeed be a red flag for trouble.


The best strategy is to be proactive. Discuss with your child what is private and what is not. Go over your rules and expectations. In addition, clearly state that you will periodically drop in on their blog or cell phone log and be in touch with their teachers.

Go into your teenager’s room periodically – being careful not to trip over anything on the floor – and look around. You may see something that is left around by accident. Then don’t get into a battle about cleanliness. We’re discussing far more important values than a spotless room.

Likewise, get to know your children’s interests and friends, as well as their friends’ parents. Ask them who they’re chatting with on the telephone or online and set appropriate limits. You might want to prohibit chat rooms and IMing (Instant Messaging), and to generally limit the amount of online usage.

Many parents keep the children’s computer in a common room, not a child’s bedroom. This strategy facilitates hands-on supervision of their computer usage. These days it is fairly easy to check out their web sites, and don’t hesitate to do so.

In fact, Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 2000. This law requires businesses to secure parental consent before collecting personal information from pre-teens (below the age of 13 years). It allows parents to review the data and requires businesses to obtain parental permission before disclosing any information about their child.

So, at least until the age of 13, some parental rights are protected by law.

However, even within the law, there is a very important caveat: Remember not to over-control and over-manage your child. You want all of your children to be able to manage their own lives, and the pre-adolescent and adolescent years are the training ground for doing so.

Instead, keep the lines of communication open. Sometimes they will close down (teenagers are notoriously moody and private) but you will be there to observe, question and intervene.

Finally, seek professional help if you notice an unhealthy pattern of teenage behavior and you feel helpless or uncertain what to do. Taking action now could prevent much more serious problems later.

The Child Safety Act of 2005

Important legislation has been introduced which, if passed, would go a long way toward protecting our nation’s children from sexual predators. The proposed The Child Safety Act of 2005 would increase criminal penalties against convicted child molestors as well as close loopholes in laws that allow predators to roam free. Let’s take a look at the pending legislation and how you can play an important part in seeing that it becomes law.

HR 3132, also known as The Child Safety Act of 2005, was introduced by Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, on July 26th as a response to several high profile crimes involving children. Each crime committed involved the kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and murder of the victims by predators including these three cases:

  • David Onstott, 36, has been charged with first-degree murder of 13 year old Sarah Lunde. Law enforcement officials say that Onstott, a registered sex offender, confessed to breaking in to the home of the teen and choking her to death. Her body was found one week later in an abandoned fishing pond near her home.
  • John Evander Couey, 46, has been charged with capital murder, burglary, kidnapping, and sexual battery on a child under the age of 12, as a result of breaking into Jessica Lunsford’s home while she was sleeping. Couey reportedly confessed to repeatedly raping the child and then buried her alive in the backyard of his home located in Jessica’s neighborhood.
  • Joseph Edward Duncan III, 42, has been charged with the murder of four individuals from one family as well as the kidnapping and rape of two children. Duncan stalked the Groene family home for several days before overpowering and killing three family members and kidnapping the two youngest children. One of the children, Dylan Groene, was later murdered while his sister, Shasta, was rescued.

    In all three cases the perpetrators all had a criminal history — often extensive — and were able to allude the law by failing to register as sex offenders. The Child Safety Act of 2005 will include the following provisions as outlined in the press conference handout distributed by congressional aides:

  • Improves Sex Offender Registration and Notification Program to ensure that sex offenders register, and keep current, where they reside, work and attend school
  • Improves verification systems for sex offender information by requiring monthly verification, sex offender in-person verification every six months, and regular notarized verification mailings
  • Requires States to have a uniform, public access sex offender registration website
  • Creates Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website to search for sex offender information in each community
  • Expands sex offenders to include juvenile sex offenders
  • Requires States to notify each other when sex offender moves from one State to another
  • Expands sex offenses covered by registration and notification requirements to include military, tribal, foreign, sex crimes, and increases duration of registration requirements to protect the public
  • Expands community notification requirements to include active efforts to inform law enforcement agencies, schools, public housing, social service agencies and volunteer organizations in area where sex offender resides, works or attends school
  • Creates new criminal penalty of mandatory minimum of 5 years to maximum of 20 years for sex offender who fails to comply with registration requirements
  • Expands law enforcement use of DNA to solve sex crimes
  • Prevents and deters violent crimes against children and sexual exploitation of children
  • Protects foster children from sexual abuse and exploitation
  • Increases criminal penalties against child sexual predators

    So, what part can you play in protecting our children? Contact your two U.S. Senators as well as your House Representative and ask them to support the bill. Kindly, but firmly, stress that our children must be protected against repeat sexual offenders and that HR 3132 — The Child Safety Act of 2005 — should be passed as one way to help keep our children safe.

    Too many of our kids fall prey to sexual predators. You can have a part in tightening loopholes that allow these monsters to roam free. Our children deserve nothing less.

  • A Calamity of Justice – The Genarlow Wilson Case

    Is it possible for a 17-year-old to go to jail for a decade for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old? In the state of Georgia–before they modified the law–the answer was yes. Every once in a while a case comes along that shocks the conscious of most good-natured people, this case I assure you is one of them.

    Genarlow Wilson was a high school senior and age 17 at the time of his alleged criminal offense. He received a 10-year prison sentence because at age 17 he engaged in a voluntary act of oral sex with a 15-year-old female classmate. No violence or assault was asserted or raised in any of the police reports or at trial as to the 15 year old. His conviction for aggravated child molestation was based solely on the fact that the female was 15, which is below Georgia’s legal age of consent of 16. However, the sex act in lay terms was “consensual” – that is, agreed to by both teens.

    Genarlow Wilson has already served approximately thirty months in prison for this crime. What shocks the conscious here is that had they engaged in sexual intercourse, Mr. Wilson would have only served a maximum term of 12 months and would not be required to register as a lifetime sex offender. How is this possible you might ask? In Georgia–before they modified the law–When a 17-year-old male has intercourse with a 15-year-old female, statutory rape sets the maximum punishment at 12 months for a misdemeanor conviction with no sex offender registration. When that same 17-year-old male receives oral sex from a 15-year-old female, that teen is supposedly guilty of aggravated child molestation which dictates a mandatory 10 years in prison and lifetime sex offender registry. This, unfortunately for Mr. Wilson and the entire judicial system, is a case of an old outdated Georgia Law being steadfastly upheld by what must be an over zealous Assistant District Attorney, more specifically James E. Barker, who lacks the common prosecutorial discretion of most good district attorneys.

    The archaic Georgia law that Mr. Wilson has been convicted of violating has been subsequently re-written. The law now more accurately represents what most states have in terms of the age of sexual consent and child molestation laws. The new law now reads that a person is convicted of the offense of aggravated child molestation when: (A) The victim is at least 13 but less than 16 years of age; (B) The person convicted of aggravated child molestation is 18 years of age or younger and is no more than four years older than the victim. This legislature similarly amended the code sections for child molestation and Enticing a Child for Indecent Purposes to grant misdemeanor status without sex offender registration for sexual acts when the victim is at least 14 but less than 16 years of age and the person convicted is 18 years of age or younger and is no more than four years older than the victim. The legislature also amended the statutory rape provision to reflect the same 4-year differential in age between teens to grant misdemeanor status without sex offender registration for acts of intercourse. I presume that the Georgia legislature made the changes in the law in light of this case. What they failed to do, however, was make these laws retroactive. Had they made the laws retroactive, Mr. Wilson would be a free man today. I assume that the Legislature could not stomach the release of what probably amounts to hundreds or maybe even thousands of individuals incarcerated who might qualify under the retroaction.

    Either my classification of Mr. Barker is accurate or something else is afoot in this case. In the interest of impartiality, I offer one possible scenario. They only other possible reason that I can think of as to why Mr. Barker is holding steadfast on this conviction is that some other evidence must have been excluded from trial that brings to light the commission of a more serious crime by Mr. Wilson. If the district attorney lacks the evidence to prosecute on that crime he may feel as if the punishment is warranted for what actually took place despite the seemingly harmless nature of two young teenagers engaging in oral sex. I am not sure on this, but it is the only possible scenario that I can think of other than the prosecutor’s total disregard for discretion. If this is the case, the district attorney would still be in the wrong because he would in a sense be circumventing the judicial system by not having Mr. Wilson tried on the merits of the evidence for that more serious crime.

    In conclusion, I think this case brings to light some of the troublesome issues that exist in the criminal justice system of America. Once upon a time Genarlow Wilson was a high school football star with a bright future, one consensual blow-job later by a teenager two years younger and now he is a prisoner of the state for what looks to be another seven years on top of the three already served. I don’t know if anyone is going to step up and rectify this injustice. I can only hope that those in the government with the power of pardon will see this as a calamity of justice and work to release Mr. Wilson. Everyday that Mr. Wilson sits in prison is another black mark on the criminal justice system of the United States of America.

    Duke Chupa’s Story – The Prologue

    The courtroom sat in an eerie silence as Duke stood up from the hard wooden bench he had just spent the past half hour on. His stomach was churning, and he took a side glance at his attorney, who nodded, giving him a tight smile.
    The jury looked half asleep, but Duke paid them no attention. So far they had been no help to him. Duke turned to the judge, who was tapping his thumb on the dense, elaborately carved mahogany desk. The court’s slogan was fixed into the wood, inlaid with gold. Duke frowned. ‘A flat earth yields justice.’
    That didn’t make any sense. On second thought, nothing in this court made much sense.

    “Mr. Chupa!” The judge’s voice rang sharply in the large room. Duke snapped to a half-hearted stance that resembled attention.
    “Yeah, uh, could you repeat the question?”

    The judge sighed and shook his head, gazing quizzically at the young man before him. The wide stance, loose dirty jeans. It appeared to be that he had attempted to dress up the outfit, but the rumpled dress shirt that was missing the top two buttons did the effort no justice. His dark, disheveled hair matched the eyes that were giving the judge a dark, steely brown glare.
    The man’s hiking boots needed to be cleaned, better yet; replaced. The judged noted the various fresh cuts on the visible areas of the man; hands, neck and face. His eyes hinted mischief, but the tired expression he wore told that he had been through a man made inferno this past week. The judge almost smiled. If only this Duke knew what was to come-if he pled innocent, that is.

    “Hey!” the court jumped at Duke’s sudden outburst. The judge glared down at the accused, and Duke rolled his eyes. “Sorry, Your Venerate. I asked you to repeat the question. Or are you ignoring my rights-again?”
    The judge took a slow sip of coffee, and then smiled pleasantly. “Rights…okay, then-here is the question. But I’m disappointed. I thought you would be unlike-”
    “Then you thought wrong!” Duke interrupted. “That’s the problem with you guys…all of you-you just assume, without evaluating your options!”

    Sighing, the judge complied. “Very well. We’ll do this your way. I’ll repeat the question, but only if you answer it. I will do my part, if you will do yours. Agreed?”
    Duke’s attorney set her file down on the desk and stood. “Yes, Your Venerate, my client will cooperate.” She looked at Duke, who gave her a curt nod. But his eyes didn’t approve. Every inch of his body was questioning the legitimacy of the trial, but he had no choice. He looked to the judge, who took another swallow of his coffee.
    “Mr. Chupa, do you understand that his court procedure is nothing like that which is of your world?”
    Duke scoffed. “If I didn’t, I’d be a genius, wouldn’t I?”
    “A ‘yes’ would’ve have served quite well.” The judge looked hard at Duke’s attorney, a thin, pretty Mexican woman who looked like she wouldn’t feel at home at all in a court room. With his mind, he willed the woman to control her client; he was tired of dealing with all of this monkey business. It didn’t work. The judge continued anyway.
    “Good. Then we will proceed. The case has been passed to the jury, as tradition, but fortunately for you, a finicky jurist insisted he either hear your side of the story, or acquit you, which…we cannot do. So please…”

    Duke burst out in horror. “Story? What story?” he tried to throw up his hands, but the handcuffs dug into his wrists, bringing the gesture to an abrupt and painful halt. He winced and continued. “How can I give you a story when I don’t have any clue as to what it’s about? Since the minute this chaos butted into my life, I haven’t had half a clue about anything that’s happened to me! You guys are insane! You think you’re from another planet, you stalk me, you wrench my mind around-and you, of all people-want a story from me? You should offer the explanation.”
    The attorney put her hand on Duke’s arm. “Mr. Chupa, please…”
    He shook her off angrily. “No! Don’t I at least have the right to know what crime I’m being charged with?”
    The judge looked nervously around the room, glancing at a group of four people, two men and two women, Duke’s prosecutors. The leader of the team, a man with premature salt and pepper hair and dark, handsome features shrugged his shoulders at the judge, and then eyed the woman sitting next to him. The woman, his sister, stared straight ahead.
    The leader looked to his left at a young Brazilian woman who had the face and figure of a model. She gave him no expression, but slipped him a piece of paper. On the other side of her, a British man glanced around, and then nodded at the leader-who wasn’t too happy with what he had read.
    He stood and put the paper in his pocket. “Your Venerate-we have decided to allow the accused to have the privilege of knowing only this. Mr. Chupa…” he turned his attention to the other side of the courtroom, meeting the glare of the younger man. “We, the Company of Flat Earth, charge you with the most inexcusable crime .”
    Duke swayed slightly, his world swimming. Inexcusable? Typically that meant murder! Sure, records of his reckless teenage years still haunted him, but would he commit murder? If that was even the crime? What if they were charging him as something worse…like a serial killer? He sat down hard, sandwiching his hands between his lower back and the wooden bench. He was so lost in thought he didn’t hear his attorney fighting for him.
    “I highly object, Your Venerate. What is my client supposed to plead if he has no idea what he did?”
    “Ms. Lopa, I ask you to control your temper in my court!”

    Cai Lopa took a deep, controlled breath. “You don’t want to see my temper, Your Venerate. But like my client, I demand answers.”
    “Fine!” the judge broke his poise and stood up. “If your client, Mr. Chupa, pleads guilty, the young man can save himself a lot of trouble.”
    “As opposed to innocent? What, might I ask, would compel Mr. Chupa to plead guilty?”
    Hearing his name, Duke looked up. “Plead guilty? To what, all of this…this hogwash you’re giving me? If you want to charge me with boosting cars, holding up the local Chop Shop, all those things I did when I was teen, fine, you know? I’m okay with that! But I’m not goin’ to death row to save your sorry hind!”

    The judge look perturbed. “Save us?”
    “Yeah! How else do you explain this conjured trial?”
    “How would you explain it?”
    Duke dropped his head, and then looked up again. “Easy.” He nodded towards the uneasy group. “One of those guys hired somebody to commit the crime, or did it themselves, then found some…some kid that already had a record, and blamed it on him!”
    The Brazilian woman stood up, now with all eyes of the court on her when before she had gone unnoticed. “Your Venerate, we’re not getting anywhere with this. Could we please just have the defendant tell his story so we can get on with the trial? Some of us don’t have as much time on our hands as you do, Your Venerate.”
    The judge nodded his head. “Indeed. The young lady has a very good point. Mr. Chupa, the only way you can have a ‘fair trial’ as you put it, would be for you to give us your side of the story. We need all the details, from the first time you laid eyes on any Flat Earth member, right up until now.” The judge turned to a man which Duke presumed to be in the position of the Bailiff. “Would you recite the defendant?”

    “Yes Your Venerate.” The skinny man hurried to snatch a book off of the judge’s desk, and then motioned for Duke to come forward. “Please place your right hand on the Law of the Members, and raise your left.”
    Duke scowled at the Bailiff. “Then you’re gonna have to take off these bracelets.” The Bailiff looked towards the judge.
    “Your Venerate?”
    The judge screwed his face up in thought. Duke sighed and shifted his weight. “It’s one or the other. Either you swear-or ‘recite’ me in, or you unlock me. I’m not a contortionist; you can’t have both.”
    The Bailiff again looked towards the judge, who waved his hand. “Take them off, and then put them back on again. In front this time.” The Bailiff nodded, and Duke followed the instructions.
    “According to the Law of the Members, Article 55, Paragraph 9, according to the standards of all Flat Earth courts…” Duke cut the Bailiff off.
    “You mean there’s more of you guys?”
    The Bailiff nodded and continued. “According to the standards of all Flat Earth courts, do you, Duke Matthew Chupa, agree to tell only the truth, and if you do in fact tell a lie you must be willing to accept the consequences as a result of a mistake, accidental or deliberate, on your behalf?”
    Duke nodded. He had no choice.
    “You may take your seat.”
    Duke headed back to the bench near his attorney, but the Bailiff put a hand on his shoulder, turning him around. “Next to the judge.” He whispered.
    “Right.” Duke stiffly walked towards the judge and took the assigned seat. He looked up at the judge, who didn’t dare meet his judgmental gaze. The Bailiff slowly walked around the desk to where Duke was sitting and held up the handcuffs.
    “I have to put these cuffs back on you. Please hold up your hands.”
    Duke did as he was told. Then he took a deep breath, and began. “I think…It started my first day on the job. A friend of a friend of mine hired me to accompany her to the London Hall of Archaeologists-we were going to photograph their fiftieth anniversary meeting, and publish a front page article in the London Update, the paper that she was a photojournalist for. ”
    The judge cleared his throat.
    Duke stopped and looked up. “Yeah?”
    “What day was it?”
    “Um…one week ago as of-today.”
    “Thank you, carry on.”

    The Economy and Its Affect on America’s Crime Rate – Past and Future

    In the 1990s the crime rate in the U.S. dropped dramatically in all significant categories, including violent crime and property crime. Some experts attribute this drop to the strong economy that existed throughout most of the decade, when the per capita income increased by as much as 30% and the unemployment rate dropped by 2%[1]. These numbers have pushed many experts in the field to speculate on the potential effects that today’s recessed economy will have on the crime rate for the foreseeable future.

    There is no doubt that a strong economy encourages a lower crime rate, for many reasons. While many experts could not directly attribute the drop in violent crime to the increase in economic strength seen in the 1990s, they did attribute it to additional state funding for police departments and crime prevention measures. The drop in property crime, specifically theft, was directly relational to the increase in economic prosperity[2]. The indications of this study show that when citizens have the resources to provide for their needs they are less likely to turn to crime as a way of providing for themselves and their families, and those individuals who are more likely to commit violent crimes are often deterred or caught in the act through increased intervention by law enforcement made possible by sufficient financial resources.

    Studies have also shown that children who grow up in homes whose annual income is at or below poverty level are also more likely to engage in criminal activity as teens and adults, and a recent study done by the Christian Association for Prison Aftercare discovered that over 53% of those individuals who are currently incarcerated had an average income of $10,000 or less[3]. Despite the controversy that these studies have sparked, there is little question in anyone’s mind that a recessed economy, accompanied by the dramatic rise in unemployment and drop in per capita income that accompany the recession, will ultimately lead in an increase in crime rate if proactive measures are not taken.

    The economic stimulus plan that is going into effect under President Obama may offer a solution to the threatening increase in crime. Through his development plan steps will be taken to provide for those living in poverty, including children and senior citizens, increasing federally funded health care coverage and tax cuts and creating a number of federally funded jobs that are expected to have a dramatic impact on the unemployment rate and begin to repair the damage that the economic recession has wrought[4].

    One can only hope that these steps will also serve to head off any notable increase in crime rate as well.

    [1] Levitt, S. (2004). Understanding why crime fell in the 1990s: Four factors that explain the decline and six that do not. Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18.

    [2] Ibid

    [3] Williams, J. (2007). Poverty and crime.

    [4]Espo, D. (2009, February 14). Stimulus bill heads to President’s desk. The Free Lance Star, pp. A1, A9.