Tracking kids 24/7
Using high-tech products, parents can instantly find out where a child is or what he's doing on the computer. But what does this do to the parent-child relationship?
In this high-tech era, when new electronic gizmos are unveiled almost every day, the term "parental controls" is taking on a whole new meaning.Skip to next paragraph
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Besides limiting children's access to certain websites, parents can now keep tabs on the Internet sites they surf, read the instant messages and e-mails they send, and even delegate the task of monitoring screen time with a device they install in Junior's computer.
But that's not all. The growing business of child surveillance now extends into the offline world, thanks to new GPS devices - including cellphones, wristwatches, and even a surgically implanted chip - that enable adults to track down kids almost anywhere.
Adults who use these tools insist they provide a sense of security in today's world of Amber alerts, terrorist warnings, and online predators. Some even go so far as to say it would be neglectful not to use them.
But many people warn that tracking devices can create big problems by eroding trust between parents and children. They ask, Are the benefits worth the risk?
"What we are doing [with these tools] is diminishing our anxiety but increasing the odds that kids will want to do the wrong thing because they deeply resent their parents' mistrust," says family therapist Alvin Rosenfeld.
As for the safety argument, Dr. Rosenfeld doesn't buy it. "It's astonishing the amount of anxiety in our society. Most abductions are by relatives, and online predators really don't come along that often. But when these things happen, the media focus on it so much that parents become terrified."
The first to object to such child-surveillance devices, as one would assume, are often those being watched. Recently, one 10-year-old girl fired off this e-mail to spy-software consultant Joshua Finer: "I came across your website, and I think you are a freak! You're breaking the rules of privacy!"
But most kids haven't a clue. According to Mr. Finer, the majority of parents who use spy software do it in stealth mode. Of the 20 million American children who access the Internet, about 50 percent of them are "being protected by Internet safety software," he says. Of those, 75 percent have filtering software and 25 percent spy software.
C.T. O'Donnell is one parent who favors the use of these products. The father of two teens and president of KidsPeace, a national children's crisis charity, he feels strongly about parents informing their children they are looking over their shoulders and telling them why: "It's my job as a parent to protect you."
If parents are going to keep track of a child's whereabouts and activities, it's best to be open about it, child therapists agree. Even then, they say, the use of spy software and other such devices can weaken the parent-child bond.
"It all comes down to respect and trust," says Rosenfeld. If a child has done nothing to challenge a parent's trust in him, there's little reason to use the products, he feels. "If children prove themselves unworthy of being trusted, that's different."
For his own kids, Rosenfeld believes in using what now seems almost old- fashioned: cellphones. His daughter is a new driver, so having a cellphone enables her to let her parents know when she's about to get on the road and when they can expect her home.
A study by the Yankee Group of Boston found that among 11- to 18-year-olds, 56 percent own or use a cellphone. Also, 55 percent of parents say cellphones provide an added layer of security in case of an emergency.
But Rosenfeld isn't about to plunk down extra cash for a cellphone that includes a GPS locator so he can track his daughter's whereabouts at all times.
Others find this extra feature invaluable - for younger teens anyway.
When Nicky Pratt, a stay-at-home mom in Garden City, N.Y., got GPS phones for her kids, the oldest - her 17-year-old son - refused to use it. And she didn't push it. "I can't blame him," she says. "I wouldn't have wanted that at his age. But he does have to check in with me."