Technology and paranoia – why tracking your child on GPS is not sound parenting

One of the hardest parts of parenting is the gradual allocation of freedoms to our children. Whether we are sending them off to the playground on their own for the first time or watching them climb on a city bus or subway, we swallow our fears and concerns and allow them to begin the critical process of fending for themselves. It’s so important they begin to do this in age-appropriate ways, so they can learn to advocate for themselves, problem-solve, develop self-esteem.

Each time they prove themselves competent and responsible, we can consider allocating additional freedoms. My mantra has always been that privacy and freedom are privileges that must be earned through consistent responsible behaviour.

As a parent, this means repressing the memory of every frightening television show, movie and news report we’ve ever seen about how these things can go wrong. It means actively not thinking about the child who went to the corner store , made their way to camp or walked her dog and never came home again. Because as horrible and terrifying and tragic as these incidents are, they are so statistically unlikely that they can not — and should not — frame most of our day-to-day parenting.

Sure, we should teach our kids about stranger danger and what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable, but the vast majority of child abductions and abuse come from people they know. Family members and friends. And 99% of missing children are found within hours or days, according to this article in Pediatrics. That article, an American Academy of Pediatrics publication entitled “The Pediatrician’s Role in the Prevention of Missing Children” also contains a lot of practical information about what we can tell our children to protect them, without unnecessarily terrifying them.

Earlier this week, our Montreal Families editorial office received a press release about a new app for mobile phones (called Nearparent), in which a GPS-enabled network of trusted adult helpers is set up by the parent for their child to access on their smartphones. My initial reaction was revulsion — I couldn’t imagine a worse example of paranoia then tracking your child’s every move. When I read more closely, however, I realized that they do protect the child’s privacy by allowing them to control when they check in somewhere or activate the help feature, which alerts nearby trusted adults that have been added to their personal network of helpers.

So (in this particular app at least), your kid isn’t transformed into a bleeping red dot on a screen, moving from school to playground to corner store and home, supervised by the parent using a smartphone at work or stuck in traffic. Thank goodness. Many clever parents have figured out how to track their kids using the Mobile Me app on their kids’ iPods, iPads and iPhone (and almost as many kids have likely figured out how to circumvent their parents’ spying.) Because unless your child is a recovering heroin addict, I can’t imagine how that could help them. And even then, I’m sure there are more effective ideas for keeping them safe.

OK, so maybe this particular app is not that bad, but it’s still part of a larger media-fuelled panic, in which the world is seen as a desperately dangerous place (see this piece on Cultivation Analysis, in which heavy viewers of television consistently see the world as scarier and more violent than non-viewers or light viewers). Apps like this reinforce the idea that the world is really scary, that most strangers are dangerous.

While parents might enjoy the peace of mind this app promises (not sure how practical it is in actually delivering any additional safety), they are giving their kids the message that venturing beyond the front lawn without mom or dad in unsafe. That we can’t quite trust them to be OK out there without us. How could this not undermine their self confidence and self esteem?

The truth is that if your child is taking the bus to school or walking home from a friend’s house, you have already determined that they are old enough and mature enough to do so. If they suddenly need help from an adult, are they not better seeking it from a friendly person on the street rather than whipping out their smartphone? Are not the vast majority of people on the street friendly to a child or teen in need? Is creating this kind of GPS-enabled network not feeding into a CSI/Law and Order/Unsolved Mysteries view of the world, in which we need law enforcement to pinpoint our kid’s location at any given moment? Why not just implant microchips behind their ears like we do with our dogs?

I’d like to think that if my kids, my friends’ kids and your kids find themselves suddenly needing immediate help, they are mature and level-headed enough to find some way to get it quickly. If they are not, then it is our duty to explain this to them in a firm but encouraging way before they head out our front doors.

Because I would much rather they see the world as a place of opportunity and discovery and not one where danger lurks in a trench coat or hoodie in every dark shadow.

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2 responses to “Technology and paranoia – why tracking your child on GPS is not sound parenting

  1. Thanks for your view on Nearparent. I am the inventor behind the Nearparent – service. The idea is to empower kids and teens, not to control them. I wanted to find a way to get help to kids fast where ever they might be, or even on our backyard when I am not there. This is not designed to be an emergency service, but a service to help kids and teens with smaller problems they might have. We designed 3 buttons, first one just letting parents know the where the kid is and that she/he is fine. The second button informs the network of trusted adults that the kid needs help, but it is not an emergency. The app also has a panic button, but really the idea is to use location technology to help the kid fast. He might just need a band-aid or any other minor problem, which might feel like a real problem to the kid. The idea behind the apps could be called technology aided shared parenting, more than controlling or tracking.
    Thanks for noticing our service. Best Regards, Antti Kosunen, Nearparent.com

    • Thanks for your comment, Antti. I understand the distinction between empowermet and control, and I acknowledge that in my post. As a parent of three kids (and two of them preteens heading off on public transportation on their own this fall for the first time), I understand in a very visceral way the desire to keep our kids safe. I recognize my own desire to be able to monitor their whereabouts and safety, to know that if they needed adult help, they would be able to reach it whenever and wherever they are. But I try to balance this with my firm belief that we also need to teach them that the world is (generally) a safe place, and that (almost all) people around them would be willing and able to pitch in and help if someone needed it.
      Am I idealistic? Sure. Am I naive? Possibly. Is it different for people living in a place like Montreal, where urban crime is very low and people generally interact in public than for people in a racially divided American inner city? Probably. I can’t speak to all parental/ teen experiences everywhere, and I’m sure there will be cases where your product saved a child or teen from disasterous consequences. Kudos to you for having the vision to be part of that solution. However, I also believe it can contribute to a panicky, hysterical world-view. And I don’t want to live in that kind of place.

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