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Big Mother Is Watching


Big Mother Is Watching

August 4, 2006
Urban PolicyOther

Some years ago my older daughter, then a senior in college, listened to me fret about rumors of drinking at the parties her ninth-grade sister was begging to go to. "They're so young to deal with this sort of thing," I worried. "Mom," she began in a knowing tone, "What do you think was going on when I went to parties in the ninth grade?"

I lingered for a moment over the disconnect between this young woman standing before me, a premed student, an Organization Kid who would sooner live on bread and water than turn in a late paper, and the image of her 14-year-old self chugging a Budweiser. Then, I struggled with two contradictory responses. First, discomfiture; I had been naive, a mental status that we been-there-done-that boomer parents find pretty embarrassing. How could I have been so out of it? And second: relief. Thank God I didn't know. If I had, I would have had to transform my parenting approach from trust-but-verify (check-in phone calls to friends' parents, "so how did the movie end again?" sort of questions, etc.) to all-out war.

This incident and my response came to mind when I read recently about the burgeoning market in parental surveillance devices. There's a gizmo that parents can plug in beneath their SUV's dashboard; when your 16-year-old daughter drives to her new boyfriend's house, it records the vehicle's speed, or any sudden stops or swerves it may have made’as well as the location of said house. There are Global Positioning Systems that you can attach to your children's cellphones; they beep your cell if your son wanders beyond his allowed haunts or notify you by email that your tween is at the mall rather than her tutoring session.

And then there are the popular Internet spy programs like eBlaster or IM Einstein that let you monitor your kid's computer activities. The more sophisticated models send an email to your work account with the content of your son or daughter's emails or Instant Messages; one of them can even show you a screen snapshot of online conversations.

Orwellian as this high-tech snooping sounds, frightening reports of abducted children, not to mention drinking parties for kids still in braces, suggest that there's a reasonable argument in its favor. A few generations ago when neighborhoods were more stable and mothers were home during the day to survey them, parents could feel pretty confident that there were familiar adult eyes watching over their kids even when they were out of parental range. Moreover, childhood had well-defined boundaries that pretty much everyone, including the corner merchant and Hollywood mediacrats, respected.

But as mothers went to work, neighborhoods emptied and the public meaning of childhood splintered, children's lives became both more anonymous and more threatened. Suddenly strangers with suspect motives were everywhere’sometimes in your own home. The Nannycam, a camera that can be secreted into the kitchen smoke alarm, for instance, to watch over babysitters, was perhaps the first of the surveillance devices to deal with the new conditions of childhood, followed quickly by the V-chip. Now with the Internet, the dangers have been globalized as online predators and porn Web sites whisper their enticements to every wired third-grader. Little wonder some parents are tempted by what one parent quoted in a Los Angeles Times article on the GPS systems, called "another set of eyes."

Still, there's a lot more behind Big Mother and Father spyware than protecting children from the dangers of an anonymous and treacherous 21st-century world. The truth is that today's parents worry about their kids' most mundane activities in a way that would baffle the legendarily meddling mothers and fathers of the 1950s. They are practitioners of what British sociologist Frank Furedi calls "paranoid parenting."

This, after all, is the generation of parents that has made bike helmets and car seats a matter of state interest and has banned such perilous pastimes as tag and dodgeball from school playgrounds. An increasing number of parents seem to be trying to control their kids' lives even after they move away from home. College administrators are now complaining about a cadre of "helicopter parents" who hassle deans with phone calls if their little one doesn't like her roommate or Chemistry grade. With a population of parents like these, Sprint's Family Locator service is bound to turn a hefty profit�even if parents have to rely on their 14-year-old, as in the case of a Kansas family described in the Los Angeles Times, to program the blasted thing.

Now, the obvious danger of such devices is that they raise paranoid parenting to an even more extreme level, thereby further depriving children of the chance to test their capacity for independence. Anthropologists tell us that traditional Japanese families often discouraged their babies from taking their first steps in an effort to keep them tied to their mothers. The custom makes a kind of sense in a culture that prizes group identity and interdependence above all. But Americans celebrate their children's first steps; they have always prided themselves on their self-sufficiency, which is a precondition for success in our society. The problem is that children who grow up knowing their parents keep track of them 24/7 fail to internalize the common sense and limit-setting that can only emerge from the experience of making independent judgments.

The more subtle, but equally important, objection to spyware is that it isn't good for parents either. By making snooping relatively impersonal, these technologies prompt mothers and fathers to bypass important moral questions about their relationship with their children. If it's all right to scrutinize your daughter's text messages, then it should be OK to read her diary. If it's all right to electronically monitor her driving, then it should be equally kosher to get in to your own car and follow her. Yet there are good reasons most sane adults would balk at these low-tech invasions of their children's privacy.

Equally pernicious, by making spying seem less intrusive, technology discourages parents from taking the periodic measurements of their child's maturity that are essential to guiding their development. Your 11-year-old son wants to take a public bus for the first time: Absent a GPS phone, you think about his judgment, how he handles money, how alert he is to his surroundings. With GPS, parents are trying to make an end-run around careful, and admittedly difficult, deliberation.

The fact is that raising children to become independent adults means years of worrying. Kids make stupid decisions. Terrible things can happen. How do you know when to let your toddler climb the steps on her own? Your 7-year-old walk to school? Your 12-year-old have free access to the Internet? Your 14-year-old go to a party where you suspect beer will be on the menu? No matter how much technology you buy, at some point your kids will be in a place you don't want them to be and do something you don't want them to do. Just remember, someday when they are older, they will probably tell you all about it’and you will breathe a sigh of relief.