The other day, my eleven-year-old son handed me my iPhone with an accusatory air, as if to say: So this is what you people do behind our backs. While he was looking at stocks, he came across a news item reporting that AT&T, with another company, was about to introduce a snap-around-the-wrist, GPS-tracking, emergency-button-featuring, watch-like thingie for children. It’s called FiLIP, comes in bright colors, and has two-way calling and parent-to-child texting. It allows you to set safe zones, so that you’re alerted when your child enters or leaves a designated area.
A little stunned, I checked it out online. FiLIP, I found, is far from the first such gizmo; this one just has more bells and whistles than most. “The world used to be a little simpler,” went its mom-and-apple-pie pitch. “Kids ran free and returned at dinnertime, and parents didn’t worry so much. But today, parents are under more pressure than ever. ... FiLIP has a simple mission—to help kids be kids again, while giving parents an amazing new window into their children’s lives.” Right. And the Invisible Fence collar on my late lamented cairn terrier let my dog be a dog.
All parents have to let their children off the leash eventually—to let them go out unsupervised, to grant them free-ish range on the Internet. That moment always comes before you’re ready for it. For me, it came after a ninth birthday, when we hooked up a Nintendo Wii, then discovered, months later, that it could be used to roam the Internet. Another point was reached toward the end of elementary school, when my children announced that they were the very last kids in their class to get a smartphone. I stalled. Then my son showed me the FiLIP ad, and I discovered a universe of options.
For the iPhone I will soon be buying him, I can get an iPhone Spy Stick, to be plugged into a USB port while he sleeps; it downloads Web histories, e-mails, and text messages, even the deleted ones. Or I can get Mobile Spy, software that would let me follow, in real time, his online activity and geographical location. Also available are an innocent-looking iPhone Dock Camera that would recharge his battery while surreptitiously recording video in his room, and a voice-activated audio monitor, presumably for the wild parties he’s going to throw when his father and I go out of town.
Had such science-fiction-worthy products somehow become acceptable while I wasn’t watching? Apparently they had. When ZDNet conducted an online debate about parental espionage a few weeks ago, 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that parents “should be able to observe the full data feeds of what their children post and receive via Facebook, text, email, and any other application or service used on their devices. It is a parent’s right to ‘violate’ their child’s notion of ‘privacy.’” When a media researcher interviewed 21 parents in three Canadian cities in 2011, only three said that they had faith in their children and that they found such hypervigilance “harmful.”
I don’t think of myself as lacking vigilance. I police homework and try to control junk-food intake. I have a password-protected laptop and parental controls activated on the house Mac. I’ve refused to set up the Xbox Live for multiplayer gaming with strangers and turned on the anti-pornograpic SafeSearch feature on Google. But I can only go so far. In a moment of laxness I’m not as ashamed of as I probably should be, I let my son open a Gmail account without demanding his password. I’m declining to investigate whether he may secretly have a Facebook page. His friends do their communicating online, just as mine do, and it makes me queasy to force him out to the edges of the conversation.
As it happens, those concessions may be endangering my children in a way I hadn’t foreseen. I learned that lesson this month, when Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida, arrested two girls for the online bullying of a seventh-grader who committed suicide. He charged them with aggravated stalking, but blamed their parents for not “doing what parents should do.” And what should they have done? Smash each girl’s cell phone “into a thousand pieces in front of that child,” he said. “Watch what your children do online,” he added.
Those girls were nasty, but comments like that, from a law-enforcement officer, are appalling. I didn’t become a parent to play undercover agent for the state surveillance apparatus. Admittedly, I grew up in a now-unthinkable age of Rousseauian parenting, when a child’s innate curiosity was not to be overly interfered with. I also ran with a crowd that, well, sometimes tried drugs. I survived. But parents whose spy software uncover similar entanglements might be tempted to ship their teenagers off to institutions for troubled youth that could ruin the rest of their lives.
Margaret K. Nelson, a sociologist at Middlebury and author of the thoughtful 2010 book Parenting Out of Control, tells me that I’m reacting like a typical “professional middle-class” parent. I scoff at overt methods of control, preferring instead to hover over my children in a half-trusting, half-doubting, entirely inconsistent way. If I lived in an iffy neighborhood, if I were raising a male African American child, if my husband and I both worked outside the home and could afford only intermittent or no child care—then I might welcome all the help with limit-setting I could get: GPS devices, NetNanny, IAmBigBrother.
But even if class influences the way you react to these technologies, that doesn’t make them OK. You may have no choice but to spy on your children, and yet it can’t be healthy for them to unfurl inside a bell jar. Total transparency fosters a creepy combination of slyness and boundarilessness. An overwatched child may acquire a knack for sneaking around. At the same time, and paradoxically, he may never quite learn not to overshare. He certainly won’t learn not to pry. You have to keep him safe from online predators, but you also have to let him push away and even defy you. Adolescents in particular need to shed their identities as daughters and sons and try on others until they come up with ones authentically their own.
Yes, they will make mistakes, and those embarrassing selfies may take up permanent residence on Facebook and in other corporate or governmental databases. But think of how easily our children accept others’ compilations of their personal data. What if the invasions of privacy that occur within the family are helping to train the next generation to expect the same from larger social entities? I called Kevin Haggerty, a criminologist at the University of Alberta, to learn about “surveillance creep,” the gradual expansion of the zone of scrutiny. We started, he explained, by electronically tracking the dangerous and the vulnerable—inmates, terrorists, Alzheimer’s patients, pets, and our own children—and we’ve wound up putting radio-frequency chips in students’ and employees’ IDs. Haggerty and I didn’t discuss the pernicious activities of the National Security Agency, which evolved over the same period of time, but the scariest endpoint of surveillance creep, it seems to me, will have been reached when the government’s yottabyte farms no longer strike us as sinister or illegal.
And there’s another, possibly even more insidious, consequence of eavesdropping on our offspring. It sends the message that nothing and no one is to be trusted: not them, not us, and especially not the rest of the world. This is no way to live, but it is a way to destroy the bonds of mutual toleration that our children will need to keep our democracy limping along.
Judith Shulevitz is the science editor of The New Republic.