Technology

Big Mother Is Watching

What does it mean to grow up under constant parental surveillance?

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What does it mean to grow up under constant parental surveillance?

Devices like Verizon's GizmoWatch are used to track young kids at an age long before they'd carry a phone. The parents get an alarm if the child ventures beyond the "geofence" they have set, at which point they can call and say, "I see where you are!"

Apps like Life360 do the same thing for older kids with smartphones, "allowing you to make sure they're safe at all times," as an app reviewer explained on YouTube.

If that sounds uncontroversial, even calming, pause for a moment to think about your own childhood. Do you wish your parents had been able to know where you were at all times? Would it have changed your childhood if they had?

About a year ago, The New York Times ran an article on kid trackers and asked kids themselves to respond. More than a thousand did. Many said they were glad their parents were keeping them safe. Others said they didn't mind being tracked, because their parents didn't check on them much. And then there were a lot who said things like this: "[My parents] say it's about my safety but I feel like I have no freedom and that I'm always being watched."

"Really the only difference between an iPhone and an ankle bracelet [monitor] is that one is in your pocket," says Oregon psychiatrist David Rettew, author of Parenting Made Complicated (Oxford University Press). Parents who insist their kids install the tracker are "sending a message that the child sort of needs to have adult electronic eyes on them at all times." Kids may believe the world is so dangerous that they're never safe without a minder, or that they aren't trusted.

The danger message is way off. The odds of a child being kidnapped are so tiny that using an app to prevent abductions is like wearing a helmet to prevent eagle snatchings.

Worse, such apps can undermine a kid's budding sense of independence. "When I was a kid, maybe I sometimes said I was going for a bike ride but went to the variety store to buy a treat instead," says Carli Sussman, a Vancouver mom. Today she lets her 10-year-old ride his bike untracked because "eventually you end up in the adult world and you have to be able to make decisions." You learn to make good ones by sometimes making bad ones.

When someone else is in the driver's seat, all you learn is passivity. But many parents don't see it that way. "For us it's a logistical tool that actually reduces nagging and hovering," a mother of teens wrote to me on Facebook. "If I see by location that they're en route to an activity, I don't need to call or text to remind/confirm."

So she is making sure, from afar, that her kids are doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing. If they aren't, she can and does immediately intervene. That's the opposite of trusting them to do the right thing, or to at least to handle the consequences if they mess up.

The Facebook mom added that "it's rare we've used location surveillance to catch them somewhere they shouldn't be—though they're likely deterred from 'sneaking out' knowing we can see their location." Note that she is not talking about being able to reach her kids. Rather, she is putting them in something like the panopticon, a circular prison with an unseen guard manning a tower at the center, so prisoners can never know when they are not being watched.

One teenager who responded to the Times article managed to wrest free. He had felt betrayed to discover that his mom had put a tracking device on his car. "As a teenager," he wrote, "I have to experience my own freedoms and learn how to keep myself safe." Somehow, he actually convinced his mom of this. She removed the tracker and now, he wrote, "I feel our relationship is stronger because she trusts me to make good decisions and be honest with her. I have more freedom and am responsible."

If we want our kids to embrace freedom and responsibility, it's probably a bad idea to deprive them of both.

NEXT: Brickbat: Out of Sight

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  1. About a year ago, The New York Times ran an article on kid trackers and asked kids themselves to respond. More than a thousand did. Many said they were glad their parents were keeping them safe. Others said they didn't mind being tracked, because their parents didn't check on them much. And then there were a lot who said things like this: "[My parents] say it's about my safety but I feel like I have no freedom and that I'm always being watched."

    --Which kids will grow up to be Democrats (and NY Times readers)?

    1. Worse, such apps can undermine a kid's budding sense of independence.

      --Mission accomplished.

  2. Welcome to the next phase of the Great Coddling (with apologies and credit to Lukianoff and Haidt). We now have an entire subset of the American people, exemplified by the elite pajama class, dedicated to safety, and naturally inclined to use macro and micro social controls to achieve a risk and stress-free life.

    And given that the elite PJs dominate the media and Democratic politics, we are well on our way to institutionalizing the ethics of a modern kindergarten class, at least those sanctioned by progressive states and cities. Be nice, share everything, follow instructions, and, most of all, be safe. Be as safe as you can possibly be. Be so safe that even imaginary exaggerated hazards pose no risk.

    And Lenore suggests the metaphor of Big Mother. If anything is worse than Big Brother, who watched and controlled our lives with the threat of a boot on our face, its Big Mother, who will smother us with caring.

  3. Kids that had parents take them to a mall wearing a leash likely are the ones using these tracking apps for their kids.

    1. When they’re three feet shorter than you, you can either use a leash to give them limited freedom, or constantly be stooped over to hold hands in crowded areas and along hazards.

      The leash is much easier than worrying your 4 year old will run ahead, right into the asshole mall cop doing 30mph on a fucking Segway.

      1. You are part of the problem

  4. "The danger message is way off. The odds of a child being kidnapped are so tiny that using an app to prevent abductions is like wearing a helmet to prevent eagle snatchings."

    Kinda like the terrible, horrible dangers of stolen elections?

    You think that mail-in voter fraud is bad NOW!?! Just you wait till the Trump-Putin-Kingly-Dear-Leader Loyalists-Royalists scream and holler about imagined massive voter fraud for another few years! Before you can vote, to prove (to all parties in highly-likely future disputes) that you are who you say you are, you’ll have to mail in your DNA sample, not only with your actual vote, but also, DNA samples (with separate side-vote-copies, to various other addresses) to the local R-party rep, the D-Party rep, maybe even the L-Party (Green Party, Commie Party, etc.) reps, PLUS the Controlling Local Voting Authority, and THEN you will FINALLY be allowed to have your vote counted! And ALL of the “parties to your DNA info” will solemnly pinky-swear to “protect your data”, of course! So, no worries!

  5. I’ve got two words for you, kiddos: Faraday bag.

    1. I would dearly LOVE to be King Faraday! I would pass a law that says, "From here on in, everyone MUST love everyone else! Violators will be shot at dawn! (In a loving way, of course)."

      All human-caused problems would then disappear! Hooo-Ray for MEEEEE!!! (Add hefty but magical legal phrases like "reasonable efforts" to make it work, as required.)

      1. When will your liver finally surrender?

    2. Take it off. Hand it to a friend. Chuck it in a creek. Stand under just about any structure without line of sight.

      As I said below, if your budding sense of independence is utterly destroyed by a GPS tag, you weren't really that subversive/independent to begin with. Lenore is, every bit as much as the people she's demonizing, pretending that every kid is a precious flower just waiting to wilt at the slightest GPS ping. As long as the kids are coming home at night to a meal that Mom cooked and PJs that she washed, real independence with or without the watch, is an illusion.

      1. Have you ever raised any kids?

  6. "[My parents] say it's about my safety but I feel like I have no freedom and that I'm always being watched."

    Wait until they find out about the NSA.

    1. Nanny State Authority?

  7. If they aren't, she can and does immediately intervene.

    So, whaddyagonnado Lenore? Raise their kids for them like a good Mom should? Parents shouldn't be allowed to avail themselves of logistical tools because they might infringe on the kids' budding sense of independence? It's a GPS tag, not a mind control device; if a GPS tag utterly destroys their budding sense of independence, it wasn't much of a budding sense of independence to begin with. Moreover, despite what you and the kids' might think, they're still the parents' responsibility first.

    I'm fine with the railing against helicopter parenting but, as you frequently do, railing against other people raising their kids in a manner you deem unfit is every bit as much, if not more, the helicopter parenting that these people engage in. If the parents need to know where the kids are so that they can make the clarinet or tae kwon do lessons that the kid wanted to sign up for, it's not your prerogative to say whether the money spent on the tae kwon do lessons and/or the GizmoWatch should go up in smoke.

    1. "Mom! We're gonna go ride bikes! "

  8. Devices like these were predicted long ago on The Jetsons. I felt sorry for Elroy being burdened with them, although the cartoon kid seemed quite content about it. I likewise feel sorry for today's real-life kids having to carry them. But the development should surprise no one.

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