There was once a time when radio-tracking devices and tiny cameras were the reserve of spy novels and cold war games. But today, in a world populated by cell phones, such devices are commonplace. They surround us. Teens can be seen on every corner industriously texting friends, photographing their daily interactions, and increasingly, reporting their locations with cell phones and social media services such as Facebook and Twitter.
All this has left parents wondering how far they should be going to keep tabs on their kids’ increasingly documented lives. The fact is,doing so has never been easier. By using the very technologies their children employ, such as Facebook, text messaging and Global Positioning System (GPS), parents can easily snoop on their kids and teens if they choose.
Just ask Ursula Lebana, founder and owner of Spytech, a Toronto shop specializing in the sort of James Bond spy gear usually reserved formovies. A good portion of her business, she says, comes from parents looking to track their kids. Among her wares, Lebana sells GPS tracking devices that can be implanted underneath cars to relay information about where the car has been, what mileage it’s done and how fast it was going. But her hottest selling item?
“The most popular item of course is computer monitoring software,”Lebana says. “Between 13 and 16, there seems to be the most monitoring going on. I think that’s when kids want to fly out and be grown-ups and don’t know the dangers out there.”
Likely to appeal to parents who realize simply being Facebook friends with their children won’t allow them full access to their online lives, Lebana says such software is necessary as times have changed.
“When I was young my mother knew everyone I hung out with. Now (teens)are on the Internet chatting with total strangers and parents want to keep an eye on there.”
As an example she points to one customer who monitored her daughter’sconversations with a friend and discovered she was having suicidal thoughts after a break-up with a boyfriend.
But although parents now have the option of turning the technology back on the kids, doing so might not be the best idea, says blogger Kathy Buckworth. The mother of four has boldly kept up with both kids and technology and written about it in a book, The BlackBerry Diaries: Adventures in Modern Motherhood.Based on the premise that her BlackBerry is her fifth and favourite child, Buckworth has explored the digital landscape together with her children and eventually come to a sort of equilibrium.
“My son, who is 17, got his cell phone when he was in grade 9,” says Buckworth. Her 19-year-old daughter also has one. “It’s a bit of an electronic leash — it gave them freedom and it gave me security to be able to text them and find them when I needed to. After school if they want to take off, I can text them and find them. Also, if they were out towards their curfew, I could text them that they have to be home in five minutes and their friends don’t need to know it’s their mom calling them. I call it ‘cyber-nag’ them.”
But having engaged technology to communicate with her kids, Buckworth says there’s a fine line to draw between being involved and invasive.
“My kids won’t let me be their friend on Facebook … I think that’s okay because that’s their forum for communicating with their friends. My older daughter let me onto Facebook for about five minutes and then said ‘that’s enough — you’ve seen enough into my life.’ And frankly, I had seen enough.”
But Buckworth is aware not all her contemporaries share her perspective.
“I have quite a few friends who read their kids’ text messages,”Buckworth says. “I think you can’t do that. That’s like reading someone’s diary.”
“I think partly they do it because they want to protect their kids and see if they’re doing something they shouldn’t …. But the flip side of that is that maybe there’s not as much trust as there should be. At some point you have to trust they’re doing the right thing.”
Technology watcher Wayne MacPhail agrees.
While “taking precautions (around technology) is reasonable,” says the journalism instructor and technology columnist, “I would really think twice about having the expectation that my kids have their GPS on allthe time so I always know where they are.”
Aside from fostering resentment, MacPhail says close tracking of one’s kids sets a bad precedent for everyone.
“I think this sets a precedent for creating a nanny state and surveillance state that nobody wants to see happen in the long run.”
He points out that in any event, kids can just lie.
“If I were a kid, I would say the battery died. There are all sorts of manner of excuses. What you’re really doing is encouraging your child to lie to you. It’s not the way to build a healthy relationship,” he says.
MacPhail says parents should rather take care not to become irrationally afraid of the technologies themselves and should focus on building trusting relationships with their kids. This will be even more important down the road, says Macphail, as these technologies explode.
“I think it’s going to be standard in the next few years that people will not only announce what they’re doing, but where they’re doing it.”
Just this September, Facebook introduced location-sharing into its service in Canada, allowing friends to pinpoint each others’ location when posting updates. How kids and teens will use this capability is not yet clear.
But any parents rushing to their PC’s to see where their child was last geo-tagged might want to think about asking them first. They might just volunteer the info next time.
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