Growing Up Under Constant Digital Monitoring

Quite recently, the Washington Post published a provocative article: “Technology allows us to monitor our kids around the clock. But should we?” More than once this week, I have returned to this article as a talking point when discussing topics such as Digital

Citizenship, privacy, and even childhood development. We live in an age where children, from Pre-K through young adulthood, are under constant surveillance by and communication with their parents. Now, any reader of my blog knows that I am not one to stoke fears of children on screens or stranger danger. Much of what “kids these days” do virtually is a reflection and continuation of what they do in the real world. However, I do have a concern about the impact of parental and school over-reach through these devices.

Growing up, I was the exception in high school. I had a home computer and (dial up) internet. When I went off to college in the 1990’s, cell phones had begun to inundate the world. As I drove about 1,000 miles each way to school approximately 4 times a year (Fall, Winter Break, and Summer) and long-distance plans were pricey, I purchased a cell phone with about 100 minutes a month (that was a thing). The reasoning was that I could use it should my used (and not particularly reliable) vehicle break down on I-95 and I could keep in touch with friends and family. This was before texting and unlimited long distance. I called home about once a week. This was also a time before email had truly permeated the ethos. I paid the University of Miami $100/year for an @miami.edu email address and was one of a handful with that privilege. I checked my email a few times a week. Social Media had yet to be invented.

Two decades and change later, the world for adolescents and college students is so much different than the one I experienced. Students often get their first smartphone by Middle School. After this, parents and children are in almost constant contact. Couple that with social media platforms, which many parents access (per school directives), online learning platforms where teachers disseminate grades and feedback virtually, and a myriad of other tools parents employ at different levels to keep an eye on their kids (video monitors, GPS tracking on phones, text/email trackers, and peer parents’ eyes).

A lot has been written about the detrimental effects over-parenting (think helicopter parents and tiger moms), including learned helplessness, anxiety, and delayed maturity. Dean Julie Lithcott-Haims addressed these issues in her book How to Raise an Adult.

To be fair to parents (many of whom are my peers), I believe that a lot of over-parenting derives from a place of fear; fear that is cultivated by the media, schools, and even the best meaning parenting books. In fact, while it has never been a safer time to be a child in the United States, our perception is that crime is higher than it really is.  Add to this regular “digital citizenship” nights that focus on “stranger danger” and worst case social media scenarios (I find it interesting that we don’t do this when kids get a drivers license, even though car accidents are the #1 killer of children) and parents live in a perpetual state of fear. Fear that their child will be hurt or damage themselves irrevocably, that “one mistake” will ruin their lives. The reality is, we hardly let children be alone whether physically or virtually. This does not necessarily breed a healthy (or realistic) dynamic. If you would like to learn more about that, check out danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

While delaying maturity and creating dependence is certainly alarming, my greatest concern with all of this engagement and, let’s call it what it is, surveillance is that it is robbing young people of an important right of passage – separating themselves from their families of origin. When young people went off to school for the first time in kindergarten, that was when children first began to develop a sense of self. Who am I outside of my parents/family perception of me? This includes making your own friends, tackling your own schoolhouse problems, processing challenges and victories yourself, and (perhaps hardest for parents) making your own mistakes and living with those consequences. We have created a world where students do not do this. Sometimes, parents know a child’s grade before the child (and may draft an email to the teacher). Students and parents often text each-other throughout the school day; teachers often bemoan that parents rush to “rescue” a child who has forgotten homework or their round of snacks. Parents snoop through their children’s texts and social media to see what’s “going on” in their children’s private lives. However, this prevents a child from developing themselves apart from a parent, learning to deal with their own mistakes, or processing their victories and defeats without a cheerleader or a sled driver.

I don’t know that there is an easy answer to how much to monitor and engage with your children. I do believe, however, that given your child some distance and privacy (both in real life and virtually), can and does go a long way in helping them to develop into their own, independent self.

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