"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spying On Your Children–The Only Thing To Do?

“Dear Diary: Last night I had the most incredible sex with Jason. OMG. It was better than I ever imagined!! He did such wonderful things to me…eek! I’m still excited!  It felt soooooo good. Who would have thunk that such a short boy would have such a long thingie!!

We had an unwritten rule in our household never to spy on our children, and although we knew where our daughter kept her diary, we never looked through it.  I admit that the temptation was very, very strong.  Maybe there would be some clues about the raves she was going to, the drugs she might or not be taking, and the boys she was seeing.  Or some tidbits about us. “Dear Diary: My father is such a jerk!!! He doesn’t think anyone notices when he picks his nose in the car, and it is dis-gus-ting!! Molly said she saw him on Mass Ave digging for gold.  Yeccchhh.  How did I get such gross parents?”

The real reason for not consulting Jennifer’s diary was that she would eventually find out, and that discovery would undermine our credibility and show us to be devious, untrustworthy, and deceitful.  Even worse, it would reveal us as blatant hypocrites telling our daughter to be morally upright, honest, and worthy of trust and responsibility by day, and snooping, prying, and invading her privacy by night.  OK, we were a little spooky about what she might say about us, but that was not the real reason for leaving the diary under her old socks in the bottom drawer.

There is a fine line between trusting a child to do the right thing; and making sure that she does it by any means possible.  Most parents, especially in cities like Washington, are so panicked by what happens once little Jonathan leaves the house, that they put trust on the shelf.  Leave the flashers, molesters, and kidnappers aside.  Drugs, sex, and delinquency are the real enemies; and only with strategic and operational planning and a marshaling of all available resources, can victories in firefights and battlefield assaults be assured. Phalanxes of allies have to be assembled and armed.  Grandparents, teachers, and priests have to be drafted into service as spies, agents of misinformation, guerrilla fighters to neutralize potential danger.  There is no question that trust is a valuable commodity in warfare,but only as a practical means to gather information and to negotiate cease-fires.  It has no inherent higher value. It is a tool of manipulation.

Some parents reject this martial view of child-rearing and prefer to build the rapport, empathy, and respect between children and themselves that will serve everyone in the long run.  These parents run a big risk, however.  Adolescents are in a permanent Fuck You mode, and if parents are generic dickheads who can never be trusted, teenagers say, why pay any attention to them at all?.  Telling a kid not to do Ecstasy at a rave guarantees that he will do it….lots of it.

My children grew up in the pre-electronic era.  There were no cellphones and no GPS.  Computers were clunky and DOS-bound.  There were no tracking devices, and parents swallowed the bad image of pagers - as ghetto as pit bulls and bling - and use them for primitive locational positioning.  Parents might not know exactly where their children were at 1am, but at least they could confirm that they were alive and kicking.  Or so the argument went.   In reality teenagers ignored the pager and used it for what it was intended – arranging hookups and drug deals. In fact, the pager increased parental anxiety rather than allay it.  When Jonathan didn’t answer his page; and especially after there was no answer after five repeat calls; a crippling panic set in.

So, in those early days when Jonathan walked out the door, he entered a world of unknowable and uncontrollable deviants and criminals, bad influences, and an unhealthy mix of across-the-tracks dropouts, druggies, and sexual predators.  There was no way to track him.  Despite all the hoopla about trust vs. invasion of privacy, the irony was that trust was the only way to assure at least some protection in a bad world. You had to trust that your children had learned something about right behavior.

Things have changed.  The electronic era has ushered in a whole new world of spying whether on enemies and allies or on children as Judith Shulevitz reports in The New Republic (10.30.13)

AT&T, with another company, is 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.

It gets worse.

For the iPhone I will soon be buying [my son], 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.

How did this happen?  How did parents go from debating the issues of privacy, trust, and credibility to all out invasive surveillance of their children?  Has the outside world gotten that much more perilous?  Have we become worrywarts, afraid of our own shadow?  Have we gone overboard on children, making them so much the center of our lives, the principal source of meaning and value that we are more desperate than ever to keep them out of harm’s way? Or is it simply a matter of IT?  Spy technology is available, cheap, and user-friendly, so why not use it?

The answer is probably a combination of all the above. For the first time in human history children cost more than they are worth.  Parents rarely see any return on a six- or seven-figure investment in them.  They do a few chores, are snuggly and warm when they are little, leave home, and set up shop thousands of miles away.  Their success – Sidwell Friends, Harvard, and Yale Law School – is the only received value for parents. A successful child is like a new Porsche or a big house in Potomac.  Given the dark, sinister, and dangerous world outside the front door, spying is a necessity and an absolute, unquestionable given.  How easy it is to give a young child the gift of a FiLIP which she thinks is really cool; but which actually is a tracking device.  How mutually beneficial a cell phone which hooks the child up in multiple social networks; and which enables parents to track position in real time, then mine the day’s accumulated data to know what really went on.

Gadgets are available to track a car’s speed, location, number of passengers, radio stations listened to, attentiveness of the driver, and much more.  A parent need only download all the data collected and stored on the car’s black box, and he can know everything about his child’s performance, friends, and milieu.

Shulevitz concludes with advice and warning:

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.

The problem is that it is very, very hard to resist the temptation to spy.  We are in this NSA mess not because our government has whirled out of control.  We are responsible for the uncontrollable spin.  We have, with nary a suspicious frown, accepted the intrusion of everyone in our lives.  We love our cookies and are happy that Amazon knows what books we like; or that Netflix, by understanding our preferences, saves us the time of weeding through hundreds of titles.  We are happy that surveillance cameras are everywhere because they reduce crime, slow down speeders, and deter terrorists.  We love smartphones and GPS because we can be in touch with friends, make easy dates, and arrange parties.  We love sharing photos of us on beaches, in shady bars, in outrageous outfits.  Surveillance is everywhere because we want it to be.  Of course there are those who bang on about civil rights, privacy, and individual integrity; but they are in the minority.

Given the complaisance of the consumer regarding electronic surveillance, the commercial opportunities for private business, and the delight of government to have a data Christmas thanks to all this, it is not surprising that parents spy on their children.

It is very hard indeed to strike a balance between parental control and loosening the tether; between the rights of the parents and the rights of children; between trust and expediency.  Spying on children, invading their privacy, tracking their every move can only be corrosive if not destructive to family relationships. Yes, there is a risk that Jonathan will go astray and he might not have if you had been more vigilant; but he probably will not.  He will learn how to deal with the world on his own which, of course, every adult eventually has to do.


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