The Stack Overflow Podcast

Does modern parenting have to rely on spyware?

Episode Summary

In this episode, Ben and Ryan chat about the tools available to parents who want to keep tabs on their kids while they are playing games or using apps. What roles do developers play in determining the ethics of these situations, and how do software savvy adults manage child rearing in an era where life is increasingly lived online?

Episode Notes

The conversation was inspired by Epic's decision to make it's Kid's Web Service's parent verification free to all developers.

Ben has been grappling with these questions since 2013, when he wrote about allowing screen time into his young son's life. 

One thing that old article does remind us; how incredibly indestructible the original iPad was. A true tank of a tablet!

Thanks to our lifeboat badge winner of the week, javimuu, for explaining: How to get a Thumbail / Preview image from Server Video Url in Swift 3.0

Episode Transcription

Ryan Donovan Now, if you're a weird kid on the internet, there is--

Ben Popper But is there such a thing? I mean, isn't everybody weird on the--I mean, don't you think there's like safe spaces for them to be with other weirdos? I don't know. Isn't that what the internet is good at? Is like, helping you connect with other people like you?

RD Sure. And I guess the flip side of that is like the people connecting with others who are like them, like all the bullies getting connected now. All the really toxic--

BP I love to hang out on r/bullying and just like talk tips and tricks.

RD Yeah. Yeah. What's the best technique for a noogie?

[intro music]

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BP Hello everybody, welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk about all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my colleague and co-host, Ryan Donovan. Hi, Ryan. 

RD Hey, good morning, Ben.

BP So Ryan, you are a relatively new father.

RD Yes I am.

BP Your son was born during your tenure here at Stack Overflow. He's a stack--

RD Yeah, he just turned just turned one. 

BP Yeah, he's got one stack. And I have two kids, they're in second and third grade. So today, we're going to chat a little bit about the intersection of sort of parenting and technology. What you do when your kids start to get into screens, you know, they want to, obviously, you know, at this point, I think if you're a parent, you know your kids immediately starts reaching for that phone, they want your attention, they want to see what has your attention, they get their hands on the phone, it's a pretty amazing device. You sent along an interesting link is from an AngelList email, there's a big market opportunity, apparently lots of startups in VC, detoxifying the web for children. So tell me what we're reading about here.

RD So this was basically a list of companies and startups that are producing products that are to kind of monitor and protect your kids, you know, they're observability, but for children.

BP I mean, like not social observability or screen time, or when you say observability, we're not talking about downtime, and uptime. And SRE we're talking about--

RD We're talking about generating a news feed from the child children's activities.

BP Oh okay.

RD Secretly controlling the child's phone. Putting a geo fence around the children who have GPS tracker.

BP Yikes. Yeah, well, I'll tell you where I stand, you tell me where you stand, then we can go from there. You and I don't always see eye to eye. When I first had kids, I remember I was on the side of saying like, let's use screens, but use them productively. Let's let them use screens, but make sure they're drawing or listening to music, they're reading a comic book or, you know, learning to read. As long as we're like channeling the screen through good activities, then it can be equally as rewarding as reading a regular book, or learning to play music or listening to the radio that like, in every generation, you know, before they were written books, people said written books were gonna, you know, turn you into the devil and take you to hell, and then the radio, and then TV, and so on and so forth. So like, any new media is going to get that kind of stigma attached to it. But now, seven or eight years in, I feel very differently. I really do believe that, you know, the level of psychological engineering that goes into a lot of the games that they now want to play is so powerful that even if the games themselves are not inherently terrible, if there's some rewarding aspect, you have to monitor for a certain level of screen addiction, you know, they can become so captivated. And just want to do that all the time that you need to just, it's basically just about balance, like, you can have some screen time a day, but it has to be sort of monitored, and hopefully you're pointing them in the right direction. And so I've kind of come full 180 on that from thinking like, they can use the screen as much as they want, as long as it's, you know, limited to healthy stuff to saying like, I kind of recognize how powerfully addictive screens can be. Screens are neutral, but like the things that you find in the App Store, you know, these days.

RD Yeah, like, like we talked about that software is never neutral.

BP But you you have a one year old. So where are you right now on your--

RD So I am kind of looking at horror at how childhood is now. Like the landscape of what it means to be a kid has changed so drastically since I was a kid. I remember my parents and some of their friends were so kind of drastic that they would turn off the TV when the commercials came on. They wanted to minimize any kind of influencing.

BP Same. My college entrance essay was about how my mom tricked me into thinking you could only turn the TV on and off and the only channel was PBS. That was a big--she kept me in the dark till I was about 10 on that front.

RD I was an extra nerd. When I was sick home from school, I was like yes, PBS, it's good to have the extra classes.

BP Definitely. Three to One Contact is a stellar all time classic. 

RD But now it's such a network childhood, such a constantly visible, you know, when I was in college, I think I have five pictures of me when I was in college. And now everybody has a phone with them. I've been trying to, you know, patrol how much pictures of him get posted on the internet. I want him to have the luxury of an invisible childhood.

BP Yeah, you and I differ there. I mean, we definitely post pictures of our kids. Actually, my sister and my brother in law are anti-that and so that's actually interesting difference like we take lots of pictures of my niece but we never post them, we only share them, you know, internally on a family email thread or text chat. On the other hand, we think we're protecting her. But if you're taking a digital picture of her in the future, you know, that could end up just getting out there. I guess, you know, like, you could go back in time, the guy who was on the cover of the Nirvana album is still suing them for all the damage it did to him, you know, like, people were not necessarily protected from that in a previous era. But certainly, yeah, your life was not being recorded at multiple angles at all times. And that, you know, there's a lot that comes with that, to get back to kids, you know, like, some of the stuff you mentioned about like monitoring their activity. It's interesting, because it feels like that's now happening for adults, like, I just got the new iOS update, and there's all these new things in there about like, okay, you're saying, Do not Disturb. But now you're telling people well, do not disturb me, I'm on personal time, do not disturb me, I'm on work time or focus time, you know, and a really in depth report from Apple about my screen time and how I spent it, you know, if I pair that with my Apple watch, you know, how I was sleeping, and how many steps I walked in, what you know, how many devices I use, and it's all quantified there for me. 

RD I mean, people people are doing this sort of spyware on themselves generating metrics on how they live. People have their sleep apps that tell them when they wake up, you know, people have these risk monitors that, I don't know, they tell you your oxygen levels, they tell you your blood sugar, like, it's interesting data. But I think what the difference is that you're consenting to monitor yourself. Your kids, they may not even know like this secretly, and remotely control the phone. That doesn't feel great.

BP I guess one thing that I definitely think is kind of liberating, potentially, is the GPS stuff you mentioned. So for me, in about a year, I think I'm gonna, you know, be to the point where I'm saying to my kids, you know, if you're careful, you can bike to school, I live in like a semi rural area, you know, if you're careful, you can bike to your friend's house. And when I do do that, I'm going to want them to take a phone with them, it doesn't have to be a smartphone, but something that says like, here's where they are, and they can text you or call you at any time. To me, that's very reassuring. So I guess that's kind of with their consent, and with their knowledge, I'm not like chipping them in their sleep, and they don't know that I'm, you know, following them around. To a certain degree to me, that makes that makes good sense as a parent. Now, obviously, if it turns out later, that data is being shared with third parties. And when they turn 21, they're going to get all kinds of ads based on how they live their childhood, you know, that is a little bit dystopian. So I guess I have to be careful what devices I use.

RD Like you said, I'm at the front end of this journey. And I absolutely have a camera and you know, where my kids sleeps, because I am, you know, concerned and worried about their well being and once they get on the internet, I'm going to be concerned and worried about their well being on the internet. It becomes a question of, you know, do I limit them completely? Do I have these monitoring? Do I have sort of restrictions on it?

BP I mean, to you know, sort of say like, each era has its own, you know, boogeyman its own things that are good and bad. I recently rewatched it the Stephen King movie, and we I was just struck by like, the level of sadistic bullying that used to be considered okay, at school. And, and thinking back to my own time, you know, when I was in elementary school, and my kids now are, you know, the level of stuff that was considered like, oh, kids will be kids. And you're gonna have to learn to deal with that. And that's part of life versus now at my kids elementary school and I think many, you know, there's a strong anti bullying curriculum that comes from the very beginning. And they police that stuff very carefully. So you may have a life experience that is mediated now, by social media and pressures there and peer pressure to perform or to be seen or to be popular, or people may say nasty things about you. On the other hand, you're much less likely to get shoved in a locker, and for teachers to just sort of say, like, you know, to turn a blind eye to that it's just part of, you know, school. So it's kind of interesting, the vector has moved online and away from real life.

RD I also worry about the online, the constant visibility of kids kind of limiting what is socially acceptable, right? Like, if you were a weird kid, back in the 80s, a few people would see it, you know, you would get the kind of vicious bullying from, you know, maybe two or three outliers. Now, if you're a weird kid on the internet, there is--

BP But is there such a thing? I mean, isn't everybody weird on the--I mean, don't you think there's like safe spaces for them to be with other weirdos? I don't know. Isn't that what the internet is good at is like, helping you connect with other people like you.

RD Sure. And I guess the flip side of that is like the people connecting with others who are like them, like all the bullies getting connect now. All the really toxic--

BP I love to hang out on r/bullying and just like talk tips and tricks.

RD Yeah. Yeah. What's the best technique for a noogie? So I don't know. I think there's definitely a need for this sort of technology based on the increased exposure to other people on the internet. I don't know if this is still as much the case but I think the last time I played a first person shooter with voice chat, it's just like, stopped yelling racial slurs, that may and it's vulgar. And it's like, you're obviously 13 or 14.

BP I do think unfortunately, well, I say unfortunately, but in my opinion is unfortunate that a lot of parents let kids as young as 567 kind of have free rein of screen time that those kids have their own devices that are connected to the internet. And that they, you know, will allow them basically will, you know, rely on the screen to take care of the kid for a lot of time, maybe they don't have, you know, maybe they're a single parent who's just pressed for time. And in the past, they would have just said, hey, go out and play. Again, this gets back to kind of like the duality, like, in the 1980s, you were grew up as a kid in the 70s. I grew up as a kid in the 80s. It was much more--

RD I was  alive in the 70s. I was not--

BP Right. Okay. You had your childhood in the 80s. I had my childhood in the 90s. I was trying, yeah, we're a decade apart. But you know, say, hey, you know what, go to the playground and like, mess around with your friends don't come home till it's dark, because like, I need you out of my hair, I got to work or whatever, you know, and that came with its own dangers, and its own benefits. You know, that's a great way to figure out social connections and to be outdoors and to get exercise and to learn all kinds of life skills. Now, it might be considered sort of inappropriate in a lot of cities and places say, hey, just go out and play like you're supposed to kind of helicopter parent to a certain degree. People will call the cops if they see, you know, a young kid alone.

RD It's considered negligent parenting to let us run free.

BP And so maybe the pendulum has swung too far there. And so in exchange, you say, alright, well, you know, I have to do work for the next three hours to stand on my hair, take your iPad, and then kids. Yeah, age 5, 6, 7 are playing Fornite with a bunch of other people. And for them, it's really fun. But it is kind of, it's a first person shooter, and they're online talking to strangers. And that, you know, is a pretty, that can be a pretty treacherous world where they can maybe learn some pretty nasty habits. 

RD Yeah, I mean, I think for a good childhood, you need to be able to safely experience risk, take chances. And I think the real solution to this is talking to your kids. And that's, that's hard. I don't know if I'll be able to do it in a way that's like, Hey, what did you know, somebody say in Fortnite today, right now? Or the kid comes up to me? And what's, you know, what's this word?

BP So the product that you had brought up, which is pretty developer specific, is epic, super awesome. Let's game to have set up free parental verification for child gamers. So this is kind of parental verification and monitoring as a service, right. This is like an API, or a platform driven thing that will make it easy for me to build a game and build it in this kind of stuff. These kind of parental controls, essentially. Right? 

RD Yeah, I believe so. I mean, it's also saying, you know, kid safe monetization. I think it's just preventing your kid from spending hundreds of dollars accidentally.

BP I mean, it's happened to me, I remember one time, yeah, I was at the house, my kid had a phone, I think it was on a FaceTime, or an iPad with a friend. And my wife and I around and we just started getting these notifications, we get like a notification every time something was bought on Amazon. And it was like ding, ding, ding, ding. You know, he was, he was online looking at Beyblades, which is like, you know, the Pogs of his era with his friends. And like, just would hit Buy and like, was not really cognizant that that was like really happening. It was just like, for fun. I was like, I want this one. I want that one, you know, and so we got the notification, we could just cancel the purchases. But yeah, you know, a lot of in app purchases, don't even really give you those choices. And so parents want it set up to be, you know, a lot more tightly controlled. So I mean, right, for a developer who wants to be responsible, this is kind of a nice tool that Epic is giving you. On the other hand, you might need a developer who says like, if a kid is playing a game, maybe they shouldn't be given these these opportunities, these kinds of choices. Or if a kid is playing a game, I don't want to let their parents spy on them. Like so kind of there's developer ethics in this.

RD Well back in my day, you bought a game and that was it.

BP Yeah, exactly. You had it on disc. It has your floppy and it was yours to do as you want.

RD Put in your cheat codes, and you're ready to go. 

BP Exactly. And I guess I feel like right, the kids who are into software and into computers are gonna hack their way around this, are gonna mod their way around this are going to be running circles around their parents pretty quickly. But at least for a period of time, maybe your folks can keep an eye on you.

RD I think the solution absolutely is to cache the entire internet and just run it locally.

BP Run it locally. I think it was Sara Chipps. Yeah, somebody had their kid was young 7, 8, 9 and really wanted to be a YouTube influencer. And the parents were kind of freaked out about that. So they built a local version of YouTube, they would upload the video, and they would get, you know, auto generated comments and likes and views. They didn't realize they were uploading to a safe offline version of YouTube. So that was pretty brilliant.

RD That's pretty amazing. But it's also dishonest.

BP Right, the therapy bills will be extreme--yeah. So I guess, yeah, it's hard to know, right? Like, from a kid's perspective, when your parents tried to protect you like that. You see it as kind of controlling and surveilling from the parents perspective. You know, it's sort of like I got to keep you safe from all the horrors of what these internet and online connections can do.

RD And you know, how much of that safety requires some amount of dishonesty from the parents, you know. Like, they can't trust you fully, because you might, you know, you have to lie to them about monitoring and what the world is.

BP This article says why Epic Games is Making Its child safety tool available to developers for free. And so that almost seems like kind of a disingenuous headline like a company like Epic Games is going to make every developer tool available for free that it can, if it makes their two sided marketplace more lucrative, like this is not, you know, out of the goodness of their hearts or anything like that that's providing dev tooling so that they build on top of your platform is kind of a given at this point, I think. 

RD So you'll be like, oh, okay, I'll let my kid play in this space and right, approve his purchases. I'll give him 20, 30, whatever allowances inflated to these days.

BP Yeah there was some news recently sort of saying like, how come kids aren't using WhatsApp and Instagram direct messenger during playdates? Like, how can we get more time? How can we carve out some more of that time during a playdate for kids to like be utilizing our services? Like, let's do some like research driven insights here. Like when kids are having played it, you know, like, could they be using an Instagram kids to blabbity blabbity blah.

RD Kids don't have the armor built up. Kids don't have the judgment built right to understand what's happening.

BP And in some ways, for better or worse, you know, Stack Overflow is a pretty unique place. I think the challenges stack overflow has is how do we make the community more welcoming, more diverse, more inclusive? And how do we ensure like people who are just starting on their journey of learning to code will feel safe and encouraged to you know, and motivated to come in and ask questions. Stack Overflow kind of comes from a simpler, gentler web 2.0 time.

RD I imagine you're gonna get some some pushback on those comments.

BP I guess what I'm saying is, it's unique in that the hard part is it's hard to use and you're not being sucked into it. Whereas for most websites is the hard part is you're getting sucked in you want to be using more people and like people are--

RD There's a necessary amount of friction. 

BP Yeah, exactly. The community, yeah, has thrived in a certain way on a very, like austere and limited form of engagement. Like it's basically just q&a, even in meta, whereas in a lot of other places, it's like the content moderation problems are well, now we allow chat now we allow images, oh, there's a lot of problems. We allow video. Now we allow a live stream, you know, each one of those brings with its own sort of, you know, external consequences and problem areas. So in some ways Stack Overflow, yeah, it's still very simple. It's still pretty, you know, it's not so different from what it was in 2008.

RD May we never lose our naivete.

BP A simpler, gentler time, web 2.0 forever.


BP A lifeboat awarded 14 hours ago to Javimuu. Get Thumbail / Preview image from Server Video Url in Swift 3.0 makes a ton of sense. I am Ben Popper. I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. You can always email us with questions or suggestions at So if you're a parent who works in the world of software, you're a developer, and you've been thinking about these issues as it relates to being a parent or having kids, we'd love to hear from you and learn a little bit about what's going on in your world, what you're building for your kids or not. Yeah, if you like the show, please do leave a rating or review. It really helps. 

RD I would also love to hear from anybody who has a kid who was under a regime of monitoring and how that affected you. I'm Ryan Donovan. I edit the blog and the newsletter here at Stack Overflow. I'm on Twitter at @RThorDonovan. And if you have a great idea for blog posts, please email me at

BP Oh my god. I went to the parenting Stack Exchange to see if I could look up some tech related questions and I just have to say the top five questions right now that are like active it's just it is combing headlines from very curly hair. Oh my god. Next question just is desperate for a nap. That's not a question. That's a statement. One year old still not eating solids. How can I discourage doing a poor job without being a nitpicking perfectionist? And potty training a seven year--okay, just trust us, don't ever have kids. It's not worth it. [Ryan & Ben laugh]

RD It's nice to see that nothing changes. 

BP Yeah, we're all in it together. Alright everybody thanks for listening.

RD Lice is still around.

BP Talk to you soon. Oh my god. Yeah, technology has not solved that problem.

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