Sunday, December 31, 2006


While a guest on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," actress Patricia Heaton said that she regularly reads her 13-year-old son's e-mail without his knowledge. She said that it was the only way for her to know about those things he doesn't tell her about.

A child's safety is obviously a paramount concern for a parent, and checking his e-mail is one way to monitor safety. But does reading a child's e-mail without permission violate privacy? Are there boundaries that parents shouldn't cross to glean information about their children?

Send your thoughts to or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong with a parent who reads his/her child's emails. As long as we have legal responsibility for our kids, we need to know what they are up to and, especially, with whom they are communicating. In an ideal world our kids would tell us everything, but peer pressure (and internet predators) strongly discourages them from doing so. My own teen daughter, an excellent student with strong morals, thought she was communicating with a 15 year old boy and was planning to meet this person at a local movie theater - it was my periodic check of her emails that stopped this meeting from happening, only hours before it was to occur. Anyone who thinks their kid tells them everything and they have no need to spy is more than foolish - they could be risking their child's life.

Anonymous said...

OK? I am a great believer in opportunity, privilege, rank, whatever you want to call it.

Unethical as it may seem (and I wouldn't read my business colleague's mail upside down from in front of his desk) , yes I think it is OK to read the 13-year old's mail. If she ferried him (her) back and forth to school, to soccer games, dancing lessons, whatever, along with friends, Ms. Heaton would probably get an earful. Kids seem to forget you are there when you are chauffeuring. But if she can't find out any other way, and he doesn't communicate, go ahead and read. She needs to know what's going on in his life and she is his mother, not his friend/buddy.

The truly unethical action is that she broadcast it on late night television to whoever in the world might be watching.

Mary L. Dodge
Lynchburg, VA

Anonymous said...

It is a 50/50 call. Supervision is one thing and intrusion another.

Patrick Burris
Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said...


In my opinion,Patricia Heaton and all parents of 13 year old children are correct to check e-mails send to their underage children.

At the age of 13, children are vulnerable,hence parental vigilance is not only advisable, it is necessary.

At the age of 13, children are not yet entitled to total privacy from their parents. Even older children,right until the age of 16,when they're still residing in their parental home.

Frankly,I don't like the expression of: "Parents who spy on kids".


Bert Hoogendam,
Sarnia,Ontario ,Canada
Column appeared in the London,Ontario) Free Press on December 30th,2006

Janice said...

I'm going to differ from what seems to be the majority opinion so far and say that a parent should never snoop on a child without his knowledge. I have set strict rules about Internet use, conversations with strangers, etc.; my older son (15) knows that he may not meet with anyone he becomes acquainted with over the Net without parental approval. We do, however, use a program that monitors what Web sites he visits, and he knows that.

We can't control or protect our children completely. (For example, they could get into all kinds of trouble at a friend's house where rules aren't enforced.) The world is a dangerous place -- but the truth is that our kids are in more danger from a trusted coach or neighbor than from a stranger. I think the most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open, and that means trust -- and reading your kid's email without his knowledge is a violation of trust that, if discovered, is likely to drive your child away from you.

Janice M. Eisen
Brookfield, WI

Anonymous said...


I am writing with regard to your recent question about a parents
right to snoop on their own children. For the record, my husband and I are the parents of two young adults, now 25 and 22 years of age. And we snooped.

Or, more accurately, we kept tabs on their whereabouts, we knew who
their friends were, we ate meals together, we kept the computer in a
common area, we did chores together, we supported their school
activities and encouraged them in their educational pursuits, we
helped them to develop their individual talents, we talked with them and showed interest in them, we spent time with them engaging in recreational and service related activities, we worshiped together
regularly and we prayed for them always.

In other words, we did not abdicate our role as parents to others; we
did our job! We knew that we had a moral, ethical, legal and
financial responsibility to these children and we took that very

We got to know our children and could sense when something was
"off". And, yes, when our parental radar sounded, we snooped. And sometimes, we had to confront them about problems we were noticing, we had to have serious/angry discussions, we had to discipline them and make them very unhappy.

However, today these (oppressed - LOL) young people are well
educated, responsible, adults and citizens who are contributing
members of society. Furthermore, we do not have any illegitimate
grandchildren, they have never been addicted to drugs/alcohol/the
computer, we never had to bail them out of jail and they have only
seen the inside of a courtroom while serving jury duty.

And now we are enjoying a well-deserved rest as we watch to see what they will do with the rest of their lives!

Renee Chapman
Yorba Linda, California

Anonymous said...

I have an 18 year-old son who is a senior in high school. Most of his communication is not e-mail, but instant messaging on-line. His computer is set up to record all of his IM conversations, and there've been necessary occasions to go back and read what was written, as well as a couple of e-mails. However, he was sitting right beside me while I was reading, making both of us aware and respectful of the situation.

Kids have computer smarts. My 14 year-old tried a couple things: first, saving to a password-protected file then deleting what he didn't want me to know. Later, setting up a second e-mail account to forward and delete the stuff he wanted kept secret. Needless to say, he lost computer privilages both times.

If your child finds out about your snooping, they'll take extra steps and may not stay safe.

M W Bruening
Salt Lake City, Utah

Anonymous said...

A report appeared in the London Free Press (London,Ontario Canada),dated February 7th.,2007...
The report was headed:"Net Luring Probe Nabs Duo"

This report was about the recent arrests and two young girls,age 13 were victimized by two criminals of lewd behavior.

This Report supports my comments which you have on your file.


Bert Hoogendam
Sarnia,Ontario Canada

The article appears at

Anonymous said...

I don't believe parents should spy on their kids. Someday they will be adults, and they need to learn how to make responsible choices, they need to make their own choices, but with some advise along the way (that doesn't mean strict orders or being spied on, that means being treated like the young adult they are becoming and talked to like an adult, advised on how to make responible choices). They WILL be an adult soon enough, whether the parents like it or not. If a child is being controlled and snooped on all the time, they won't learn to make their own WISE decisons, and once they are on their own are then doomed to make many bad decisions due to the lack of having learned to make their own choices. Children are not a piece of property, they need to be educated and advised, but not controlled and spied on.

Matthew Sibley said...

I am a 13 year old in the childrens right alliance and I say very strongly that this is against childrens privellages, you should tell children basic guidelines but you say that they never tell you anything that is because they know you will have a go at them at their choices in life so they don't trust you but how can they trust you when you go behind their backs to spy on their emails? And yes spying is the correct term, you are watching someone's personal activities without permission, You try growing up if your parents watch and scrutinze all of your decisions, you would never learn from your own mistakes then when you are 80 your kids will ring you and ask if it is ok for them to go shopping!!

Email me on,
If you want to arhue this further

Anonymous said...

The decision to spy on kids should not be made lightly. I am 14 and currently have 3 private ( parents do no have password) accounts, have triple-booted my computer, and once installed parental control software myself just to see how ling it took to bypass it (15 minutes). The only way my parents could spy on my is by hacking into my emails, removing all operating systems (except windows), and hiring a professional. For some kids, parental spying could be helpful. My parents thought it better to inatead teach me the dangers and then allow me to decide. My goal in life is to become an ethical hacker.