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.

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."

His younger siblings, on the other hand, thought the phones were cool. Now when they drop by a friend's home after school, they don't have to phone home since Mom can check her own GPS phone to see exactly where they are. "My 13-year-old son never was great at remembering to call," Ms. Pratt says, "so this keeps me from worrying.

"Let's face it," she adds, "the world we live in is not the nicest of places."

In his research on kid-locating devices, her husband, Tom, came across the wristwatches that feature not only a built-in GPS device but also buttons for calling home or the police. "They seemed bulky to me, and it was too easy to call 911," he says. "Besides, I liked the idea of putting everyone in the family on the same network."

Those watches, marketed for kids ages 4 to 12, are locked onto children's wrists with a key, which parents keep. "It's like they're criminals," says Rosenfeld.

Also controversial among parenting pros is spy software. Depending how much they want to know about what their children are up to online, parents can choose from among a wide variety of programs.

They include IamBigBrother, which specializes in recording all incoming and outgoing instant messages; SpyAgent, which records all correspondence, whether it be instant messages, e-mails, or chat-room exchanges; and eBlaster, one of the most sophisticated and aggressive, which immediately forwards incoming and outgoing e-mails to a parent as they are sent. Xanovia also offers the ability to spy on webcam activity as well as to capture and compress screen shots.

Instead of installing such intrusive programs, many parents opt for filtering software, which may deny access to unwanted websites, block pop-up or pop-under windows, and shut out many unwanted e-mails.

And then there are those timers that can be installed in computers. Rick Cohen, inventor of EyeTimer, says parents are drawn to his product because it "takes them out of the role of being the bad guy." Instead of Mom or Dad shouting "time's up," the computer does it for them with 10-, five- and one-minute warnings before shutdown.

"I realize it's not a substitute for being a good parent," says Mary Rable, a mother of three, "but you have to pick your battles, and this is one that's been eliminated for me."

She allows her 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to spend 45 minutes each on the computer per day, and she relies on EyeTimer to enforce that rule.

Keeping kids from zoning out for hours in front of a computer is one of parents' greatest concerns today, says Mr. Cohen. Studies show that children spend an average of 35 hours per week in front of a screen, whether it be a computer or a TV.

But some quibble with the idea of delegating important negotiations to an electronic device. Others go beyond that, questioning the long-term effects of all of this virtual parenting.

"I'm concerned," says Wendy Simonds, an assistant sociology professor at Georgia State University, "that subsequent generations are going to take all this surveillance for granted and stop thinking about all the technology that surrounds them and what it means.

"Adults don't want to micromanage kids' lives," she adds, "but I understand the temptation to do that because this technology exists."

It all goes back to the need for community, says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles therapist who studies families and technology.

"When I was growing up, neighbors were always watching us, and we didn't want to mess up because somebody might tell [our parents]. That sense of community no longer exists because no one wants to get involved, so parents are forced to use technology."

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